One quick look at termites and flying ants and you might think the insects are twins. Despite their likeness, the wood-destroying bugs have a few physical differences, from their abdomens to their antennae. If either species has invaded your house in large numbers, they'll take to making messes of your wooden structures, although each in a different way.
While they look strikingly similar, flying ants, also known as carpenter ants, and termites belong to two entirely different orders of insects. Flying ants belong to the Formicidae family of insects, which belongs to the Hymenoptera order of insects that includes ants, bees, wasps and sawflies. There are 2,300 species of termites that belong to seven families and those families belong to the Isoptera order, which consists only of termites.
Take a good look at a flying ant and a termite side-by-side and you'll notice a difference in the shape of the insects' thoraxes and abdomens. A termite's abdomen, essentially the creature's back end, looks somewhat like an elongated oval. The abdomen connects to the termite's thorax -- the part between the head and abdomen -- seamlessly. In contrast, a flying ant's abdomen is shaped like a fatter, shorter oval. A thin connection joins the abdomen to the thorax, which gives the ant the appearance of having a belted waist. The connection is not at all seamless in appearance as a termite's is.
Antennae and Legs
Both flying ants and termites have two antennae and six legs, but they're not alike. Termites have short and straight antennae, while flying ants sport longer antennae that bend horizontally near the base and then shoot up vertically. A flying ant's antennae look somewhat like a football goal post. A termite's legs are quite short, while a flying ant's legs are long.
Ants and termites have forewings and hind wings. In termites, the two pairs are of identical size. In flying ants, the forewings are quite a bit larger than the hind wings. Although this is a big difference between the two insects, it's not easily spotted. It's a lot easier to see the size difference when a camera snaps a closeup of the two insects than when they're flying and scurrying around inside your home. But if you find a dead one, take the opportunity to inspect the insect's wings.
While both insects can destroy the innards of your house, termites pose a greater threat. They feed on wood, while flying ants simply remove wood to build tunnels and expand their homes. Finding a termite in your home means a nest is close by and likely inside the house. Finding a flying ant in your home, on the other hand, does not signify an infestation. The University of Connecticut Integrated Pest Management Program points out that foragers from nests outside sometimes make their way indoors but warns that if you find large numbers of ants every day or piles of sawdust in winter, you likely have an infestation. Resolving a termite or flying ant problem calls for a professional pest control specialist. Do not attempt to tackle the problem yourself.
Located in Pittsburgh, Chris Miksen has been writing instructional articles on a wide range of topics for online publications since 2007. He currently owns and operates a vending business. Miksen has written a variety of technical and business articles throughout his writing career. He studied journalism at the Community College of Allegheny County.