What Do Termites Look Like?

How to Recognize these Pests and the Damage they Cause

Close-up photo of termite soldier.

David Wrobel/Visuals Unlimited, Inc./Getty Images

Most of the 2,200 or so species of termites live in the tropics and have been munching away on wood for more than 250 million years—long before human being began building their homes with lumber.

Termites recycle wood products into the soil by feeding on cellulose—the main cell wall component of plants—and breaking it down. Most termite damage is caused by subterranean (underground) termites, members of the family Rhinotermitidae. Among these ground-dwelling termites, the most common structural pests are the eastern, western, and Formosan subterranean termites, who will happily eat the framing of your house starting at the bottom, where moisture has made the wood soft and working their way up.

Other termites that cause structural damage include the drywood termites (Kalotermitidae) and the damp-wood termites (Termopsidae). Drywood termites enter at the roofline, while damp-wood termites prefer basements, bathrooms, and other locations where water leaks are likely to occur. If you suspect you have a termite problem, your first step is to confirm that the pests are, indeed, termites. So what do termites look like? 

Termites or Ants?

Winged ants look quite similar to termites and as a result, quite a few people confuse the two. Here's how to tell them apart:

  • Both winged ants and termites have antennae but while termite antennae are straight, the antennae of ants are bent.
  • Termites have wide waists, while ants have narrow waists that make them look almost like bees.
  • Both flying ants and termites have two pairs of wings but termite wings are the same size. Ant wings are larger in front and smaller in the back.
  • Swarming termites range from about 1/4-inch long to 3/8- inch long which is roughly the same same size as a carpenter ant or a large fire ant. Fire ants are 1/8-inch to 1/4-inch long. Damp-wood and drywood termites are larger than subterranean termites.
  • Some worker termites are translucent, almost clear in color; others are brown or gray.

Eastern Subterranean Termites

Termite soldiers
USDA ARS Photo Unit, USDA Agricultural Research Service, Bugwood.org

The termites pictured here are soldiers of the native eastern subterranean termite species. Swarmers are about 3/8-inch long. Notice their rectangular-shaped heads, which can help you distinguish them from other termites. Eastern subterranean termite soldiers also have powerful mandibles (brown jaws protruding from their heads) with which they defend their colonies.

Eastern subterranean termites live in moist, dark places. They feed on structural wood, eating out the core of beams and leaving thin shells behind. As a result, these termites can be hard to detect and by the time many homeowners notice an infestation, the damage has been done.

Formosan Termites

Formosan subterranean termite soldier.
US Department of Agriculture/Scott Bauer

This Formosan subterranean termite soldier measures about 1/2-inch long. Its head is darker and oval in shape, it has a rounded abdomen, a thick waist, straight antennae, and no eyes. Like the eastern subterranean soldiers, Formosan soldiers have powerful jaws to defend their colonies.

Formosan termites were spread by marine commerce and as one of the most destructive termite species in the United States, now cause millions of dollars of structural damage in the southeastern United States, California, and Hawaii each year. They can multiply and destroy wood structures faster than other native subterranean species. They don't actually eat faster than other termites but their nests are enormous and can contain millions of termites.

Drywood Termites

Drywood termites.
Rudolf H. Scheffrahn, University of Florida, Bugwood.org

Drywood termites live in smaller colonies than their subterranean cousins. They nest and feed in dry, sound wood, making them a significant pest of wood-frame homes. Like most termites, drywood termites eat structural wood from the inside out, leaving a brittle shell. Unlike some other types of termites, however, they don't need access to damp conditions. Many species of drywood termites live in the southern half of the United States, with a range extending from California to North Carolina and southward. Most are 1/4- to 3/8-inches long.

One way to distinguish drywood termites from subterranean termites is to examine their waste. Drywood termites produce dry fecal pellets which they expel from their nests through small holes in the wood. Subterranean termite feces is liquid.

Eastern Winged Termites

Winged eastern subterranean termites
Susan Ellis, Bugwood.org

The reproductive termites, called alates, look quite different from workers or soldiers. Reproductives have one pair of wings of almost equal length, which lie flat against the termite's back when it's at rest. Their bodies are darker in color than soldiers or workers, and alates do have functional compound eyes.

You can distinguish reproductive termites from reproductive ants, which also have wings, by looking at their bodies. Termite alates have the characteristic straight antennae, rounded abdomens, and thick waists, while ants, in contrast, have markedly elbowed antennae, pronounced waistlines, and slightly pointed abdomens.

Eastern subterranean termites usually swarm during the daytime, between the months of February and April. Winged queens and kings emerge en masse, ready to mate and start new colonies. Their bodies are dark brown or black. If you find groups of winged termites inside your home, you probably already have a termite infestation.

Formosian Winged Termites

Winged Formosan termites
Scott Bauer, USDA Agricultural Research Service, Bugwood.org

Unlike native subterranean termites that swarm during the day, Formosan termites typically swarm from dusk until midnight. They also swarm later in the season than most other termites, usually between April and June.

If you compare Formosan alates to the eastern subterranean reproductives from the previous image, you'll notice the Formosan termites are a lighter color. They have yellowish-brown bodies and wings that are a smoky color. Formosan termites are also noticeably larger than native termites.

Termite Queens

Termite queen.

China Photos/Getty Images

The termite queen looks quite different from the workers or soldiers. In fact, with her expansive stomach full of eggs, she barely resembles an insect at all. Termite queens have a physogastric stomach. This internal membrane expands as she ages and her egg-laying capacity increases. Depending on the species of termite, the queen may lay hundreds or sometimes thousands of eggs per day. Termite queens live extraordinarily long lives. A lifespan of 15 to 30 years—or more—is not uncommon.

Termite Damage

Termite damage to a wall.
Getty Images/E+/ChristianNasca

Termites can do extensive damage inside walls and floors—often without detection. Since termites eat wood from the inside out, you probably won't find them until your home is infested, and you're more likely to see signs of damage than the bugs themselves. Look for:

  • Sawdust or sand-like material near windows and door frames, which could be droppings of dry wood termites. You may also notice tiny holes where sawdust has accumulated.
  • Mud tubes are structures that subterranean termites build to connect the nest to the source of wood. Check outdoors and indoors at the base of your home where the frame connects to the foundation and scan your crawlspace or basement if you have one, for the brown, branching structures. They can also hang from joists, so check the floor beams as well.
  • Look for accumulations of dry fecal pellets left behind by drywood termites.
  • Shed wings from the swarmer termites or the bugs themselves can often be found near windows or windowsills. Swarmers are attracted to light so check under outdoor fixtures.
  • Does wood framing sound hollow when you tap it? You might have termites.
  • Do you have wood that looks water-damaged but it hasn't been exposed to water? You might have termites.
  • If your painted or varnished wood or drywall is blistering, you might have termites.
  • If you notice damage across the wood grain, you might have termites.

Termite Prevention, Mitigation, and Control

If you live in areas where termite infestations are common, it's important to inspect your home (or have it inspected by a professional) regularly for possible infestation. Catching termites early can save you costly home repairs. Should you find signs of termites, you can treat the infestation yourself or call local pest control professionals. If you choose to do it yourself, you'll need to find the location where they're feeding (the "termite gallery") and aggressively treat the site with insecticide. You'll also need to place baiting stations or treat the soil to kill the remaining insects outside.

Of course, it's better to prevent a termite infestation than it is to have to deal with one. Prevention methods include digging a trench and spraying an insecticide into the ground to repel them. It's a labor-intensive process but can last for five to 10 years if left undisturbed. Bait stations aren't labor intensive but must be checked every few months. They need to be dug down 8 to 10 inches and placed at intervals of eight to 10 feet. Bait stations are first loaded with "prebait." Once termite activity is confirmed, they're reloaded with poisonous bait. Termites bring this poisoned bait back to their nest and it kills the colony.