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A source for information on termites


Is it a termite or an ant?




Winged ants and termites are referred to as alates. The alate is simply the adult, sexually mature stage in the ant or termite life cycle. Alates develop in the colony from immature stages prior to flight season. When they receive the necessary environmental cues, such as warm temperatures, low winds, and bright sunlight, they leave the colony and fly away to start their own colonies. This flight of independence is commonly referred to as ‘swarming’ and so alates are also known as swarmer’s.  

Male and female termites shed their wings and pair up when a mate is found, find a suitable nesting spot and start their own colony. Swarming in ants is different. Male and female alates leave the nest and after the female is inseminated, the male dies. The newly fertilized female then searches for a suitable nesting site; the choice of where to nest depends on the species. And so, when termites swarm they are often misidentified as “flying ants”. This is a common mistake since termite alates are very similar in appearance to ants.

However, there are three simple characteristics to look for that can be used to tell the difference between a winged ant and a winged termite.

Ant alates have elbowed antennae that are bent at an angle. A long, straight segment called a scape connects to the head. The remaining segments flex and bend, and sometimes end in a small ‘club’. Termites have segmented antennae that look like a string of beads. They are entirely flexible, and termites use them to touch and feel.

The ant alate has a thin, constricted ‘wasp’ waist between their thorax and abdomen. Termite waists are not narrow. Termite bodies are straight-sided with no constriction. Both their thorax and abdomen blend together. 

Ant reproductives have two different pairs of wings. The front pair is much larger in size, wider and visibly longer than the back or hind pair. Other ants have a black dot near the tip of the front wings, and dark wing veins can be seen. Ant reproductives can fly considerable distances, and their wings do not break off easily.

A termite’s wings are long and narrow; both pairs are the same shape and almost the same length. Termite wings break off with a touch. If termite swarmer’s have been crawling, their broken wings litter the swarm area (which is also a good indicator of termite infestation, especially if found indoors). Also, termite wing veins cannot be seen with the naked eye. Termite swarmer’s can usually only flutter for short distances.

Also, ants differ in that they go through a complete metamorphosis; that is, they go through the egg, larvae, pupae and adult stages which all have different appearances. Ant workers are adult females and all look alike, but may vary in size. Termites have a gradual/simple metamorphosis. They go through the egg, nymph and adult stages. Nymphs look like small adult workers. Reproductives are dark-bodied with same-sized wings. 

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