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What is the difference between ants and termites?

For 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? Both insects interact differently in terms of their ability to cause a disturbance to man. Ants are usually seen as an annoyance for the most part (Fire ants are a different story) whilst termites are inherently known for their capacity to cause a large amount of damage to a property.


Often mistaken as white ants, termites do differ from ants in terms of how they act and what they look like.

Termite Characteristics

Unlike ants, termites live off a strict diet of cellulose. Cellulose is an organic compound found in wood, plants and paper. All species of termites live off cellulose whether they build their nest using it depends on the species.  For example Subterranean termites aren’t too fond of sunlight. They tend to build their nests underground and use tunnels made from mud and their excrement to navigate an area for food.

What do termites look like?

Although very similar to ants in terms of shape and size, termites have some unique features which helps 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 with their own duties within the colony.

There are three main termite classes each with their own unique characteristics:

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.
  • First line of defence 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 onto 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.

Discover the common signs of termites in your home


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

Ant Characteristics

Ants will often travel a wide range in the search for food. Some types of ant will lay down a scent which will attract other ants to a food source. Some species of Ants are known for having a particularly strong sweet tooth and are attracted to items such as fruit, sugar and honey.

What do Ants look like?

An ants appearance differs from a 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 some differences which can be made between the two insects


  • 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

When discussing the differences between termites and ants, it’s important to mention carpenter ants.

One of the main contributors to the confusion between the two types of insect, 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 the wood fragments are merely used to build their nests.

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

Discover the common signs of ants in your home

Call Rentokil today for advice and to schedule a termite inspection of your property.

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.

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