Imagine this: You’re unpacking or packing away clothing and gear for the season when you spot something a little strange. It looks like your closet, attic, or basement has become home to much more than just plastic tubs and boxes since you last checked. The first thing you notice: bugs, and lots of them! They’re crawling everywhere, and it appears they’ve been busy. Your storage space’s costly wood is now littered with, not only disgusting bugs, but lots of tiny holes and other noticeable damage.
If you’ve experienced something similar, you probably have a termite or carpenter ant problem.
While carpenter ants and termites both make their homes in wood, they are very different insects. Here are some easy ways to tell them apart.
- Carpenter ants are dark in color and their bodies are made up of three main parts: the head, the thorax (their middle), and the abdomen (their rear end). If they have wings, the wings only go just beyond the end of their abdomen.
- Termites, on the other hand, are usually similar in color to wood—blond or sandy-colored. Their bodies are only two sections-—a head and a thorax. Flying termites have wings that are almost twice as long as their head and thorax combined.
If you can get a closer look at the wood damage, you can usually tell whether you have termites or carpenter ants.
- Carpenter ants are wood carvers, and the tunnels and galleries they burrow are smooth, making the damage look not dissimilar to Swiss cheese. This is because carpenter ants don’t actually eat wood, they simply make passages through it.
- On the other hand, termites are wood eaters. Like a two-year old with a bowl of SpaghettiOs, termites create a big mess when they feed, leaving wood debris in their wake. Depending on the kind of termite, you might see muddy passageways inside the wood, too. And because they’re actually eating the wood, the structural integrity of the lumber breaks down more quickly compared with carpenter ants. Sticking with the cheese analogy, termite-infested wood is crumbly and falls apart, like a parmesan block grated into powder.
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to find these bugs anywhere there’s wood, like in your crawlspace, subflooring, closets, walls, and even pieces of wooden furniture! While there is only one kind of carpenter ant (and they typically prefer damp wood), there are actually three different kinds of termites: dampwood, drywood, and subterranean, and you might find all three in your home. Dampwood termites live in and eat the damp wood in your home, and drywood termites do the same, but with dry wood.
That being said, if you are looking at termites, they’re most likely subterranean—which means they live underground. They are the kind that bring mud into your woodwork, and they’re also the most common termite that homeowners encounter. In fact, within the U.S., subterranean termites are by far the most widespread and economically destructive of all the termite groups.
- Carpenter ants have darker, three-sectioned bodies with wings only as long as their own body (if they have wings). They burrow into the wood, making it look more like Swiss cheese, but because they do not actually eat the wood, it can take years for you to notice the damage. They are partial to damp wood only.
- Termites have lighter, two-sectioned bodies with wings that are double their length (if they have wings). They eat wood, causing it to break down more quickly than carpenter ants. Depending on the type of termite, they will eat damp or dry wood, making their home in the wood or, more likely, underground.