What Do Termites Look Like?

Close-up photo of termite soldier.
Getty Images/David Wrobel/Visuals Unlimited, Inc.

Termites have been munching away on wood for more than 250 million years, long before people started building their homes from trees. Termites recycle wood products into the 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 (underground) termites, members of the family Rhinotermitidae. Subterranean termite nests usually contact the soil, thus the name subterranean. Among these ground-dwelling termites, the most common structural pests are the eastern, western, and Formosan subterranean termites. They will eat your framing starting at the bottom of the house and like softwoods.

Other termites that cause structural damage include the drywood termites (family Kalotermitidae) and the dampwood termites (family Termopsidae). Drywood termites enter at the roofline and damp wood termites like basements and bathrooms or where water leaks occur. 

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? 

Termites Versus Ants

Winged ants look quite similar to termites; as a result, quite a few people confuse the two. This is especially the case when comparing winged ants to termites. Here's how to tell them apart:

  • While both winged ants and termites have antennae, termite antennae are straight while ant antennae are bent.
  • Unlike termites, which have wide waists, 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.
  • Termites and their swarmers range from about 1/4 inch long to 3/8 inch long, about the same size as a carpenter ant or a large fire ant. Fire ants are 1/8 inch to 1/4 inch long. Dampwood and dry wood termites are larger than subterranean termites.
  • Some worker termites are translucent, almost clear in color. Others are brown or gray.

Signs of Termites

Because 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 see tiny holes where the sawdust has accumulated.
  • Mud tubes, which subterranean termites build to connect the nest to the source of wood. Look outdoors and indoors at the base of your house where the frame connects to the foundation, such as at the crawlspace or basement, for the brown, branching structures. They can also hang from joists.
  • Shed wings from the swarmer termites or the bugs themselves near windows or windowsills. Swarmers are attracted to light.
  • Wood that sounds hollow when tapped
  • Wood that looks water-damaged but wasn't exposed to water
  • Painted or varnished wood or drywall that's blistering
  • Damage across the wood grain

What to Do if You Find Termites

If 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 first find the location where they have been eating (the "termite gallery") and attack the site, applying the insecticide. Outside you will place baiting stations or treat soil to kill the remaining insects, as done in the prevention section below.

Prevention

Methods of prevention include digging a trench and spraying an insecticide into the ground to repel them or a "nonrepellant" barrier that they bring back to their nest to kill the rest. 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 every 8 to 10 feet. First, they're loaded with "prebait" and then, after the activity is detected, the actual poisonous bait.

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.

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 termites. Swarmers of this species are about 3/8 inch long. 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.

Eastern subterranean termites live in moist, dark places. They feed on structural wood, eating out the middle of beams and leaving thin shells behind. As a result, it can be hard to see these termites; 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.

As one of the most destructive termite species in the United States, Formosan termites are a major concern. They can multiply and destroy wood structures faster than other native subterranean species. This is the case not because they actually eat faster than other termites, but because their nests are so big. In fact, Formosan termite nests can actually contain millions of termites.

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

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. 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. Look for accumulations of these dry fecal pellets. Subterranean termite feces is a liquid, by comparison.

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.

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 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
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.
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 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 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.