What Do Termites Look Like?

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.

So what do termites look like? This photo gallery will help you learn to recognize termites, and termite damage, when you see them.

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.

 

Eastern Subterranean Termites

Eastern subterranean termite soldiers have rectangular heads and powerful jaws.
Eastern Subterranean Termite Soldier Eastern subterranean termite soldiers have rectangular heads and powerful jaws. USDA Agricultural Research Service

Termites share certain physical traits that will help you distinguish them from ants or other pests. They lack a pronounced "waist." Termites have straight antennae that look like strings of tiny beads. Their hind ends are rounded. Only the reproductives have functional eyes; workers and soldiers are blind and lack eyes.

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 termites, an invasive species, causes millions of dollars in structural damage each year.
Formosan Termite Soldier Formosan termites, an invasive species, causes millions of dollars in structural damage each year in the U.S. Scott Bauer/USDA Agricultural Research Service

In contrast to the eastern subterranean soldier seen on the previous page, look carefully at this Formosan subterranean termite soldier. Its head appears darker and is oval in shape. Like the eastern subterranean soldiers, Formosan soldiers use 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.

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.

Winged Termites

Winged termites appear in spring, ready to mate and establish new colonies.
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 rests. 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.

Termite Queens

Termite queens have expansive abdomens to hold eggs and can live for decades.
Formosan Termite Queen Termite queens have expansive abdomens to hold eggs and can live for decades. USDA Agricultural Research Service

The termite queen – the one pictured here is a Formosan 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.

Drywood Termites

Drywood termites nest in dry, sound wood.
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.

Subterranean Termites

Extensive galleries are visible in this termite nest, removed from a wall.
Termite Nest Extensive galleries are visible in this termite nest, removed from a wall. Peggy Greb/USDA Agricultural Research Service

Subterranean termites require some moisture to survive, so their nests usually contact the soil. If there's enough moisture in a wall or other wood structure, though, termites may nest right in the wood. This Formosan subterranean termite nest was removed from an apartment wall in the French Quarter of New Orleans. You can see the extensive galleries created by the wood-eating pests.

Damage Caused by Termites

Formosan subterranean termites chewed through the structural lumber in a century old building.
Formosan Termite Damage Formosan subterranean termites chewed through the structural lumber in a century old building in New Orleans. USDA Agricultural Research Service

Termites can do extensive damage inside walls and floors without detection. With the drywall removed, it's clear that termites have been feeding on the studs in this wall for quite some time.

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.

Formosan subterranean termites chewed through the structural lumber in a century old building in New Orleans. The termite damage wasn't obvious until the floorboards were removed.

Formosan termites, an invasive species in the U.S., first appeared in Louisiana after World War II. Today, the entire French Quarter is infested with the aggressive pests, which cause an estimated $300 million in damage each year in New Orleans alone.

Drywood Termite Damage

Drywood termite damage of a door.
Drywood Termite Damage Drywood termite damage of a door. Rudolf H. Scheffrahn, University of Florida, Bugwood.org

Drywood termites will feed on and nest in wood with very low moisture levels. Here, you can see drywood termite damage to a door. Drywood termites inhabit nearly every continent. In North America, they live primarily in the south and along coastal areas.