A swarm of flying bugs have just entered your home, patio or deck. They may be black, brown, red or a pale ivory. They do not fly very well and seem easily befuddled. They are more intent on mating than flying. This is because they are winged alates, young queens and drones looking to not only mate but begin new colonies. But are they flying ants or termites? They look incredibly alike.
The best way to determine what species is doing the mating dance on your property is to capture one and put it in a glass jar. If you have a magnifying glass, then using that will help you to better see the insect’s bodily features. Keep the insect alive if possible, even though you may be tempted to stomp on it. If you stomp on it, then the exoskeleton may be broken and the antenna crushed, making identification nearly impossible.
Termite antennae stick out straight in a sort of V shape sprouting from the head. If you have a powerful enough magnifying glass, the antennae will look like a long string of beads instead of a straight line. Ant antennae also have some beading effect, depending on the species.
Ant antennae are more L shaped, or bent like elbows in human arms. In comparison, ant antennae are much longer than termite antennae, but hopefully you will not have both species on your property. For those with poor vision (such as this writer) the antennae of winged termites are very hard to see while the antennae of winged ants are easily seen with the naked eye, even if the bug is still twitching them about.
Next, take a look at the wings. Both termite and ant alates will have two pairs of wings. But in ant alates, the wings closest to the head will be significantly larger than the other pair. In termite alates, all four wings are the same size. Winged ants and winged termites drop their wings in a couple of days. It is much easier to judge how large each are when they are still are on the back of the alates.
If the winged alate is still vigorously active, then this may be the only bodily feature you can distinguish with the naked eye or even with a magnifying glass. Ants are related to wasps and therefore have a wasp waist. However, termites are related to cockroaches and have no waist at all. Their entire bodies are shaped similarly to guinea pig feces (or elongated pellets.)
University of Florida Cooperative Extension. “Ant vs. Termite.” http://flrec.ifas.ufl.edu/entomo/ants/Ant%20vs%20Termite.htm
Colorado State University Extension. “Termites.” http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/insect/05532.html
Kansas State University Department of Entomology. “Winged Ants and Termites in the House!” http://www.entomology.ksu.edu/DesktopDefault.aspx?tabid=729