Termites are automatically considered pests in many parts of the world and for good reason. They chew on wood furniture, eaves, and home overhangs. They make your home’s foundation brittle as they build colonies inside the structure.
But did you also know that termites are good decomposers? Aside from that, there are a whole lot of bugs that look like termites and we will cover them all in this post.
In this article:
Facts about termites
Termites are the perfect example of ‘the good and the bad’. Termites are pests when they gain control in the home by niching on the wood frames but they are needed in the great outdoors as decomposers and as sources of protein for predators. Beyond these, there are more things to know about termites, and here are some of them.
- There are some termite species recorded to have existed for over 250 million years.
- Termites are very hardworking. They do not stop building their colonies. They are awake 24/7 to build them.
- Some termite species can build colonies upward. You would find mounds of termite colonies in tropical climates. The highest one can be found in Africa and it is as high as 30ft.
- Termites are organized in a caste system. They protect their queen, they have workers and they have soldiers. With their defined roles, only the worker termites can destroy the colony structures they built.
- The roles of the termites are determined through the pheromone-laden feces that their queen will feed them at infancy.
- The termite queen lays 40,000 eggs per day or ten million a year. An average, queen termites live in a span of 30-50 years.
- There are at least 2,700 termite species in the world.
- Termites shed their wings as soon as they find a good location to build their nests.
- Annually, termites cause accumulated property damage of $5B.
- Termites are actually considered the enemies of ants. They are considered ant predators and perhaps, you have an ant infestation to balance out your termite infestation.
- Termites are very important decomposers. They have the ability to break down tough plant fibers in a way other bugs can’t.
- There are more termites in the world than people. Every human has a thousand-pound termite counterpart.
- Alaska is the only American state that can be considered termite-free. Technically, not termite-free. It is just that, the damaging termites cannot survive there and those that do, thankfully, do not pose any damage.
What does a termite look like?
Chances are, you find the common soldier termite and you would just generalize that all termites look like that. Truth be told, their hundreds of termite species around the world, and forty species can be found in the US alone. Although they truly look similar most often than not, each species has salient differences in look and behavior.
Generally, termites are 0.25-0.5 inches in size and length. They are distinct for their straight and long antennae and have very soft, flat, long, and ovate bodies. In terms of color, various species differ in tinge. Some are white in color while most come in shades of brown.
Furthermore, termites have thick waists but with shorter legs. Termites are also winged and both wings have the same length.
The four most common species of termites are damp wood termite, dry wood termite, the Formosan termite, and subterranean termite. Dampwood and Formosan termites come in reddish-brown, light brown, yellow and tan colors while dry wood and subterranean termites are dark brown, silver-gray, and black in color.
In terms of size, damp wood and dry wood termites are significantly larger than Formosan and subterranean termites.
As the name implies, dampwood termites infest where moist woods are or places with high moisture content. They are the largest termite type. They do not usually make an infestation in the home but with low care, you would attract them. They are most likely found in coastal places and semi-arid locations such as Florida.
This is the type that will most likely make an infestation in the home. They do not need soil to thrive and they would typically niche in wooden walls or in roofs or anywhere where there is deadwood.
They could also tolerate a bit of moisture so you will also find them in leaky pipes or near the heater. They are most likely found in suburban California and in southern states like North Carolina.
They are called as such because it is suspected that they come from Taiwan and China. They are considered as the most fatal to the property as they are more voracious wood eaters.
They are the ones who build mud nests across your walls and could have up to 20,000 members in a single colony. Once they reach infestation, they will be the hardest to control and eliminate. They are found in Tennessee, California, Virginia, Texas, Georgia, and Hawaii, to name a few.
In the US, subterranean termites can be found in all 49 states except Alaska. As the name implies, they live underground and form colonies in the soil. They can also nest in moist structures aboveground. They are the most reproductively prolific of all termite types. They can grow to up to 2million in a single colony.
They are considered to be at par with Formosan termite when it comes to property damage. Because they have the largest population, they build unique mud tubes that are long and continuous serving as a passageway for them to get access to the food supply in your home.
5 Bugs that look like termites
We had to discuss how to identify termites from other bugs because there really are a handful of insects that look like them. In this section, we will present some of the most common insects that are mistaken for termites along with their distinct characteristics and behaviors that separate them from these insects/bugs.
1. Carpenter Ants
The most mistaken insect for termites would be ants, specifically carpenter ants. First of all, they could co-exist in one colony. The stark difference, however, is that carpenter ants bore or excavate the wood structure to make a tunnel out of it while termites chew and feed on wood.
Like worker termites, carpenter ants also do not have wings. Termites and carpenter ants share the same color and size; black or dark brown and at a range of 0.25-0.5 inches. They also have two pairs of wings but carpenter ants have longer front wings than their hind wings. The distinct feature of carpenter ants is their defined waist along with an elbowed antenna.
There are also winged carpenter ants as there are winged termites. They are swarmers and are more visible during spring. Winged carpenter ants completely shed their wings while termites detach theirs after swarming. You will most likely spot carpenter ants indoors because they constantly search for food. If you spot termites wandering indoors, that is clearly a sign of infestation.
2. Powderpost Beetles
This one gets their name for their ability to bore down on the wood and pulverize them into powdered wood particles. But just to clarify, it is their larvae that does this damage. Adult powderpost beetles do not make that much damage. You would know that the adults have emerged if you spot pinholes in wood structures.
While they only live for a year, the larvae stage is long and by the time they emerge as adults, the damage may already be severe. As for size and color, powderpost beetles are just 0.25 inches in size, elongated but flat, and are black or reddish-brown in color. The fatal larvae are cream-colored with distinct brown heads.
You will usually find powderpost beetles in moist wood. In the wild, they are found in saps of wood where sugar and starches are concentrated. In industrial zones, they will most likely infest structures that are built out of reclaimed wood. While they are easy to eliminate, they are the most potent insects to re-infest.
In the home, they would typically niche in rafters, furniture, stored lumber, joists, and also finished wood. They are most active at night and they are most commonly mistaken for subterranean termites.
3. Flying Ants
This type of ant is not an annual problem but during winter, you must do something about it. In the winter, they will breed and they will need a safe colony where they will swarm. The best spot is your home, of course, but when summer and spring comes, the wings will be prepared mating. As a matter of fact, they are fondly called alates or reproductive ants because their contribution to the colony is to produce more ants.
Flying ants only fly during mating season. They are protected by the colony all winter-long. They prepare the right humidity, temperature, the right amount of wind, and sunlight breaking in the colony.
They do not bite humans and generally do not pose any threats to us. Alongside termites, flying ants can be identified in two ways. Fly ants have irregular shaped pairs of wings while termites have two pairs of wings at the same length and size. Flying ants like all other types of ants also have bent antennae. Of all types of ants, flying ants have the thinnest body.
4. Carpenter Bees
They look like real life bumble bees. They are fondly called wood bees though because they have the tendency to bore on wood but not to eat them but to prepare a space where they could lay their eggs. They create galleries in the wood they pin through, leave the eggs there while they continually deposit pollen, and wrap them in hard enclosures for protection.
Carpenter bees are not considered structural pests although they bore on wood. This is because they do not create their colonies in the wood structure itself and they do not spread for infestation. Most of all, they are picky. They only choose finished or unpainted wood. They will create wood stains, however.
They have the black and yellow stripe with tinges of metallic reflections in hues of blue, yellow, purple, and green hues. They have more shiny abdomens compared to bumblebees because the latter has more hairy abdomens. They are large at 0.5 to 1.5 inches.
You can usually see a carpenter bee buzzing over the garden with that helicopter-like sound. They can also be found under decks, in porch rails, or in your home’s eaves.
5. Acrobat Ants
This type of ant gets their name for their ability to raise their abdomen over their head or over their thorax. They tend to do this when they are threatened or disturbed. They are not a cause for concern but when they are disturbed, they also have the tendency to bite.
They are very adaptive, composed of various species of shiny brown and black color (sometimes even multicolored), and can be found even at high-altitude places. Worker acrobat ants are the smallest at 3.2mm. The queen acrobat ant is at 10mm. They are most distinguishable for their six legs and their heart-shaped abdomen with a segmented, flat body.
While they are generally harmless, they could infest your home. You will usually find them in wires, pipes, and making a queue along your walls. Their route is usually a hundred feet away from their niche so if you want to look where they come from, keep this figure in mind.
Moist attracts acrobat ants too. Having them around means that there are moist structures around. They are most likely niching around them too. This is their similarity with termites since termites can also be contracted with moist structures.
How do you tell if a bug is a termite?
When you are not sure if a bug is a termite, you can employ some easy steps to make a confirmation.
The first step is to have a close inspection of the insect. For this, you have to get a hold of one. No matter how uncomfortable it could be, you have to catch one because termites look like many other insects. Use a cup or mason jar to trap the insect and look for termite’s distinctive characteristics: straight pair of antennae, flat, ovate, and elongated body, and shiny black, silver, or brown color.
You can also confirm if it’s a termite depending on the wings. Termites have two pairs of wings. They are all in the same length and size. If they lose some wings, it indicates that they have swarmed and have built a colony.
In determining if a bug is a termite, you also have to be aware of the three major types of termites: winged, soldier, and worker termites. Worker termites have shorter antennae and do not have wings. They are the white or translucent ones. Soldier termites are brown in color. They do not have wings either. They are distinguishable for the pincers near their heads.
Winged termites on the other hand are black or dark brown in color and they are the most visible type of the three. Lastly, take note of the size. Termites are smaller than some ant types. These insects are just 0.25-0.5 inches in size. They cannot really grow bigger than that.
Since they can only be visible if there is a growing termite infestation in the home, you might also need to know signs of infestation to be on the lookout as to where they are niching in your home.
First, check on the wood structures of the home. Tap and closely check if the sound is hollow. If it is, then it is a sign of termite colony. Sagging ceilings are also visible manifestations of infestation. Also, watch for termite droppings. They look like small pellets but brown in color. They usually pile up in one location if the infestation is severe.
The most visible sign of an infestation is to look for tube-shaped mounds along the walls. They build these mud tubes overnight and serve as tunnels where they transport the food into the main colony.
Termites are a serious cause of concern. They have large damage potential, boring on woods, invading your home’s structure, making ceilings sag and all. There is a reason why there are extensive termite control services around. As a matter of fact, termite control services have become profitable over the years because they are not easy to eliminate.
But when you spot one, you might want to think twice because it may not be a termite at all. Sometimes, that is just a harmless ant, beetle, or bee. To be sure, you have to catch one for inspection. Immediately look at the wings if they are straight and all pairs are of the same length and size. Next, take a look at the antennae. If they are bent, they are ants. If they are straight, they are termites.