What is the difference between ants and termites?

Ants vs termitesFor anyone that’s seen the film Antz, you’ll know that ants and termites are at a constant battle with each other in the wild. However did you know that these two insects often get mistaken for one another?

To the untrained eye, both insects look alike, but did you know that termites are actually more closely related to cockroaches than ants?  Ants are generally seen as an annoyance, but this does depend on their species, whilst termites are inherently known for their ability to cause exercise amounts of damage to a property.


Termites are often mistaken for white ants. However, termites differ greatly from ants in terms of their appearance, characteristics, and dietary requirements.

Termite Characteristics

termitesTermites live on a strict diet of cellulose. Cellulose is an organic compound found in wood and plants. All species of termites live off cellulose, meaning that they not only consume wooden structures, but they can and will also feed on plants, cardboard, and paper!

What do termites look like?

Although very similar to ants in terms of shape and size, termites have some unique features which help identify them.

  • Termites are a light colour, usually a white/cream colour and can sometimes look quite translucent.
  • They have straight antennae compared to ants.
  • Termites have a thick waist.

Termite Castes

Much like ants, termites operate within different castes (classes). Each castes differs slightly in appearance and have their own role within a colony.

The three termite castes are:

Soldier Termites

  • Have an enlarged head with big jaws to help protect the colony.
  • Both male and female, but sexually underdeveloped.
  • Jaws are so big they can’t feed themselves and rely on the workers to do this duty for them.
  • The first line of defense against attack, often give their life protecting the colony.

Worker Termites

  • Both male and female.
  • Carry out a range of duties – They are essentially builders, miners and midwives rolled into one.
  • Responsible for the damage inflicted on a property.
  • Contain the greatest number of individuals within a colony.

Winged Termites

  • Referred to as alate.
  • Leave the nest in the spring and summer months to mate and start a new colony.
  • Once they mate, their wings drop off as they land and find a new nest.
  • Unlike ants both their sets of wings are equal in length.


Ants also have their own set of unique characteristics which makes them differ from termites.

Ant Characteristics

red antsAnts will often travel a great distance in the search for food. Some types of ant will lay down a scent which will attract other ants to a food source.

What do Ants look like?

An ants appearance differs from termites in a handful of different ways:

  • They are usually a dark colour depending on the species.
  • They have elbowed antennae.
  • Their eyes are evident on the side of the head.
  • They are made up of 3 sections – Head, Thorax and Gaster.
  • Compared to termites, ants have a thin waist where the thorax meets the gaster.

Ant Castes

Ants also operate in different castes, although there are some similarities with termite castes, there are also some differences

The ant castes are:


  • All female.
  • Look after the queen, care for the young, forage for food.
  • Help expand and maintain the nest.
  • Quite small compared to the other castes.


  • Only current in ant species which are polymorphic.
  • Much larger than worker ants and have strong jaws.
  • All female.
  • Protect the colony but also, use their large jaws to help cut and carry large objects

Flying Ants

  • Liked termites referred to as Alate.
  • Are only female.
  • Their two sets of wings are different sizes from one another.
  • Fly from the nest in the summer to start a new colony. Once they have landed and start to build a nest, they clip their wings and use them as a source of protein for their new family.

Winged Drone

  • The only male in an ant colony.
  • Their only job is to reproduce.
  • During summer, they fly off with the females to reproduce and start a new colony.
  • Once they have mated they die.

Carpenter Ants

Carpenter antsCarpenter ants can often be mistaken for termites due to their destructive nesting habits.

Carpenter ants act similar to termites in terms of their damage to a property. However unlike termites, carpenter ants don’t eat wood, they feed on the fungal decay associated with rotting wood and use the wood fragments to build their nests.

A key sign in identifying if you have carpenter ants or termites is wood shavings. As  carpenter ants don’t consume wood you can often find excess wood discarded through the entrances of their nests.

Spotting the Signs

Knowing the difference between an ant and a termite is extremely important with termite season poking its head around the corner.

Being able to identify the differences between termite damage and an ant infestation can help streamline the approach to managing a potential pest infestation for both you and your pest controller, helping to save you both time and money.

  1. Laurie

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