What do termites look like

Knowledge is power and early detection is crucial.  It is important that as a homeowner you know what termites look like, and what the damage they cause looks like.  There are termites in every state in the continental United States, and you will probably run into them within your lifetime.  If purchasing an older home have an inspector go through it before your purchase, and if you are purchasing a new or newer home hire an inspector, ask for bond so you know the property has been treated, make sure it is built with pretreated lumber, and no sign of termites have ever been encountered.  It’s good to be able to identify what type of termite is bugging you – so making an informed decision about control will be easier.

Drywood Termites

Drywood termites that are seen by homeowners are the reproductives or swarmers; their proper name is alates.  Swarmers are 7/16 inch long including wings and vary in color from dark brown to yellowish-brown; their wings are smoky gray to clear.

Drywood soldiers grow to 5/16 inch long, and their function is defending the colony.  They have a large brownish- yellow heads with big mandibles; their bodies are tan to dark brown.  Soldiers emerge from the nest when they vibe danger, usually from invading ants.

Immatures are wingless termites who gather food, eat wood to enlarge the nest, feed and care for the queen and the colony.  Their bodies are white to beige in color from 1/4 to 3/8 inch long.  Immature termites are rarely seen; they thrive buried deep inside wood serving their colony.

Subterranean Termites

Subterranean reproductive “swarmers” are dark brown to black in color with milky clear wings; termites are 1/4 to 1/2 inch in length.

The body is divided into three regions – head, thorax, and abdomen – with a pair of straight antenna.  Reproducers have two pairs of wings that are long and narrow which extend greater than one-half their length beyond the abdomen.

Soldier subterranean termites are creamy white in color with a dark brown head and large mandibles.  Soldiers grow larger, and although they are blind, soft-bodied, and wingless, soldiers defend the colony.  Their large jaws slice, puncture, and kill enemies of the colony (mainly ants).  The mandibles prevent them from feeding themselves, and they rely on the worker for sustenance.

Workers subterranean termites are cream colored with no wings and grow to 1/8 to 1/4 inch in length and are responsible for all labor in the colony.  Worker termites care for the young, repair the nest, build foraging tunnels, locate food, and feed and groom the others.  They have no eyes or wings, and their body is soft – these are the pests found in infested wood.

Dampwood Termites

Dampwood termites grow larger than subterranean and drywood termites – up to 1 inch long with wings.  Pests only attack wood that wood that is very moist, living exclusively in wood – they do not need contact with soil.  To identify these pests look to the swarmers – reproductives which are dark brown with brownish wings.

The dampwood soldiers have a large reddish-brown head with large multi-tooth mandibles.  Dampwoods have the ability to change caste as they molt, grow, and develop – some will develop into larger soldiers, and other will become winged reproductive.

Dampwood termites do not have workers; younger termites called ‘false workers’ do the work in the colony then they molt into other castes.  They have soft tan bodies, almost transparent with a spot on their abdomen.  Size is 1/2 to 5/8 of an inch long with a narrow body.

Identification of Termites by Wood Damage

Wood Damage by Drywood Termites

Galleries or tunnels in the wood made by drywood termites cut across the grain of the wood and destroy both soft spring wood and the harder summer growth.  Wood eaten across the grain is a sure sign of drywood termites – they will consume all the wood right up to the surface wood, or right up to the paint surface.  The inside of the tunnels will be smooth and looks like it has been smoothed out with sandpaper.

Wood Damage by Subterranean Termites

Galleries made by the subterranean species follow the grain of the wood and the soft spring wood is attacked first.  Indoors subterranean damage will appear as buckling wood, swollen floors or ceilings, it may look like water damage and have the scent of mold or mildew.

Subterranean termites require moisture for survival and if there is termite damaged wood in your home you have a leak or the termites have tunnels that they use to get outside into the moist soil.  Once wood damage is found, there is an infestation, and a professional should be called in to inspect and advise the homeowner.

Wood Damage by Drywood Termites

Dampwood termites live in the wood they infest, and they always eat across the grain, they consume both springwood and summerwood.  Dampwoods stay very close to a water source – they do infest dry sound wood, but once the moisture source is removed the colony will gradually decline and succumb to desiccation.

Winged Termites vs. Flying Ants

People call termites ‘white ants’ and although their appearance is similar termites are closely related to cockroaches, not ants.  Most folks would not confuse a wingless worker termite with a wingless worker ant, but in their winged stage, it’s difficult to identify differences between them.

There are three distinguishing characteristics that differentiate the two:

  • Antenna Shape – termite antenna are straight and beaded; ant antenna are elbowed
  • Waist Size – termites have a broad waist, ants have a narrow pinched waist
  • Wing Size – both pairs of termite wings are clear and the same size, ants have brown longer front wings and shorter back wings

Termites are one of the most successful species on our planet colonizing every land mass except for Antarctica.  This success is due to the division of labor, self-regulating colonies, working 24/7, and their queens living up to 50 years old reproducing nonstop!

Now YOU can tell the difference between winged termite and winged ant.

Which is the termite?

  1. Know specific of termites in in your area.   ( we will have separate article for this – Distribution of Termites in USA)