(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on March 21, 2008.)

Many people see a swarm of flying bugs near or in the house and fear that it might be the dreaded termite. Flying ants and swarming subterranean termites (Reticulitermes) look similar from a distance. Here are a few of the easy ways to tell them apart.

Wing drop:

  • I've listed this difference first because I find it is the easiest to see. When termites swarm during warm weather, they will drop their gossamer wings as they dry. ImageIf you see a swarm outside, check in a little while to see if the bugs are gone but little wings are scattered on the ground. By the same method, if you come home to find the wings on the floor under a window, near the door or by a light fixture, you should be on alert. A few flying termites could possible get into your home from a hole in the screen or when you open the door, but it's not likely that dozens or hundreds will have found their way inside.
  • Flying ants rarely drop their wings as they fly. They will swarm, but when they leave there isn't the tell-tale sign of wings left behind.
Body shape:
  • Close observation of the body will show quite a difference in shape. You should be able to see this difference with the naked eye if you have excellent vision, but it is easier if you get out your trusty magnifying glass or hand lens. The termite's body is one elongated piece, as shown in the example.
  • Look again at the ant, the body has definite sections, with a neck and pinched waist.
Wing shapes:
  • A winged ant has two sets of wings, the front wings being shorter than the back wings.
  • The swarming termite also has two sets of wings, both of similar size.
Okay, now that we've determined it is a termite, let's decide if we should worry. Termites are normal in nearly all yards. They live in underground colonies similar to ants. In the forest, they take care of a root that dies or a tree that falls. It is their job in nature. They have the same job in your yard where trees are planted. They are often found after new construction if the builders have buried wood pieces under the final grading, and let me assure you, many do. If the termites are away from your house, you may want to have an inspection for good measure. If they are IN your house, don't panic. The house isn't going to fall down tomorrow. It is time to call for an inspection and possible treatment. I will not discuss treatments in this article as there are many different kinds, and what is best for you and your home differs by location, type of building, etc.



This is an invitation to the termites!



Wood stacked near the door should be on a rack a few inches away from the wall.

There are simple things you can do to help keep termites away from your home:
  • NEVER EVER pile cut wood up against the house. The best way to store it is on a raised metal rack. It can be placed near your home, but make sure it is not touching any part of the house, even if the house is masonry. You can have another pile out away from the house if needed.
  • When you use mulches made from wood products, make sure they don't touch the house. Keep it pulled back at least 4-5 inches or more.
  • If you have low spots against the house that are soggy, take measures to improve the drainage. Termites need moisture to survive.
  • Make sure your gutters and downspouts are in good condition and drain away from the foundation.
  • A wood trellis is lovely against the house, but make sure there is a gap between the house and the trellis. Use metal or plastic to hold it away from the wall.
  • Every spring and fall, before bushes and plants fill in, look at the outside of your foundation. Rake back leaves and mulches that may have piled up. Keep an eye out for mud tubes coming from the ground. They are often the thickness of a pencil. If you find the tubes, knock them down and call for an inspection. If you knock down a tube, you haven't made the termites go away. The termites that do the damage live underground. Unlike the black swarmer that is just trying to start a new colony, the underground worker termite is very pale in color.

Image Termite mud tunnel from moist ground to foundation. Image Worker Termite, found in tunnel or underground.
Termite Myths:
  • Termites don't "come over" from the neighbor's yard after the neighbor has their home treated for termites. I promise, they were there long before that. Please note that since it is likely that your home was built around the same time and by the same methods, you may have some of the same conditions that led to the neighbor's infestation. This myth is repeated because neighbors go on alert when they see one house being treated and they decide to get an inspection, too. It would be no different if one house was robbed; wouldn't you be watching for trouble?
  • Your house won't fall down a week after the inspector comes unless the infestation has been there for many, many years. Don't let the company pressure you into signing a contract, shop around and educate yourself before making a decision. Get several bids.
  • If you find a termite or termites near the fireplace after bringing wood in from outdoors, don't panic. They will not survive away from the nest. I can't stress enough… make sure the pile isn't against the house, that is like putting up a highway and a sign to come on in!
My brother runs a pest control business (not including termites) so I may be jaded, but I don't believe this is the time to try to do it on the cheap or handle the chemicals yourself. A contract with a professional should include a warranty that they will come back to do inspections, usually yearly, AND pay for any further damage if the termites return.
Well, that is a bit of what I know about subterranean termites. Thanks to Michael Merchant, PhD, BCE, for the illustration of the ant and termite bodies. Wings and woodpiles were purchased from Dreamstime.com. The mud tube and worker pictures are public domain.
For more information, visit Termites or Dave's Garden Pests Forum