What Do Termites Look Like?

Learn to Recognize Termites and Termite Damage

Close-up photo of termite soldier.
Would you know a termite if you saw one?. Getty Images/David Wrobel/Visuals Unlimited, Inc.

Termites have been munching away on wood for over 250 million years, long before people started building their homes from wood products. Termites recycle wood products into soil by feeding on and breaking down cellulose, the main component of the cell walls in plants. Most of the 2,200 or so species of termites live in the tropics.

Most termite damage is caused by subterranean termites, members of the family Rhinotermitidae. Subterranean termite nests usually contact the soil, thus the name subterranean (meaning underground, or beneath the soil surface). Among these ground-dwelling termites, the most common structural pests are the eastern, western, and Formosan subterranean termites. Other termites that cause structural damage include the drywood termites (family Kalotermitidae) and the dampwood termites (family Termopsidae).

If you suspect you have a termite problem, your first step is to confirm that the pests are, indeed, termites. Some people mistake termites for ants. So what do termites look like? 


Eastern Subterranean Termites

Termite soldiers
Soldiers of the native Eastern subterranean termite. USDA ARS Photo Unit, USDA Agricultural Research Service, Bugwood.org

The termites pictured here are soldiers of the native eastern subterranean termites. Notice their rectangular-shaped heads, which can help you distinguish this species from other termites. Eastern subterranean termite soldiers also have powerful mandibles (the brown jaws protruding from their heads) with which they defend their colony.

Formosan Termites

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

In contrast to the eastern subterranean soldier, this is a Formosan subterranean termite soldier. Its head is darker and oval in shape. Like the eastern subterranean soldiers, Formosan soldiers have powerful jaws to defend their colonies.

Notice the Formosan termite still shows the same basic termite characteristics: a rounded abdomen, a thick waist, straight antennae, and no eyes.

Formosan termites were spread by marine commerce, and now cause millions of dollars of structural damage in the southeastern U.S., California, and Hawaii each year.

Drywood Termites

Drywood termites.
Drywood termites nest in dry, sound wood. 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. Drywood termites live in the southern half of the U.S., with a range extending from California to North Carolina and southward.

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. Accumulations of these dry fecal pellets may alert you to the presence of drywood termites in your home. Subterranean termite feces is a liquid, by comparison.

Eastern Winged Termites

Winged eastern subterranean termites
Winged termites appear in spring, ready to mate and establish new colonies. 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 is at rest. Their bodies are darker in color than soldiers or workers, and alates do have functional compound eyes.

You can still distinguish reproductive termites from reproductive ants, which also have wings, by looking at their bodies. The termite alates still have the characteristic straight antennae, rounded abdomens, and thick waists. Ants, in contrast, have markedly elbowed antennae, prominent waists, and slightly pointed abdomens.

Eastern subterranean termites usually swarm during the daytime, between 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
Winged Formosan termites typically swarm from dusk until midnight, between April and June. Scott Bauer, USDA Agricultural Research Service, Bugwood.org

Unlike native subterranean termites which 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 these Formosan alates to the eastern subterranean reproductives on the previous image, you'll notice the Formosan termites are lighter in color. Their bodies are a yellowish-brown, and their wings have a smoky color to them. Formosan termites are also noticeably larger than our native termites.

Termite Queens

Termite queen.
Termite queens are quite large, and can live for years. Getty Images/ China Photos/Stringer

The termite queen looks quite different from the workers or soldiers. She barely resembles an insect at all, with her expansive stomach full of eggs. Termite queens have a physogastric stomach, with a membrane that expands as her egg-laying capacity increases with age. 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 15-30 years or more is not uncommon.

Termite Damage

Termite damage to a wall.
Termite damage in walls can be extensive. Getty Images/E+/ChristianNasca

Termites can do extensive damage inside walls and floors without detection. It's clear that termites have been feeding on this wall for quite some time. If you see sawdust at the base of a wall, it's time to look inside.

Schedule Regular Termite Inspections

Hand using tool to check for termite damage in a wall.
If you live in an area where termites are common, it's important to have your home inspected for termite damage regularly. Getty Images/E+/Wicki58

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 termite infestations. Catching termites early can save you costly home repairs.

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Your Citation
Hadley, Debbie. "What Do Termites Look Like?" ThoughtCo, Mar. 13, 2018, thoughtco.com/what-do-termites-look-like-4097357. Hadley, Debbie. (2018, March 13). What Do Termites Look Like? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-do-termites-look-like-4097357 Hadley, Debbie. "What Do Termites Look Like?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-do-termites-look-like-4097357 (accessed March 24, 2018).