In many places around the world, the name “white ants” is used to describe small, white insects that live in the soil and eat wood. The insect that they are talking about is usually the subterranean termite. People may have started using the name “white ants” because most termites have soft white bodies. When people discover that termites have invaded, there are hundreds of them crawling around.
Termites and ants are classified as insects, but they are not close relatives. Termites belong to the order Isoptera. Ants belong to the order Hymenoptera – this is the same order as bees and wasps. Both groups – termites and ants – live in colonies. There can be thousands, even millions of insects in one of the colonies.
Most termites eat cellulose. They get the cellulose from wood and things made from wood like paper and cardboard. Termites often attack homes and other structures so they can eat the lumber and other wood products inside.
Most ants eat protein and carbohydrate. They often get the protein by eating other insects. Carpenter ants and other types of ants often eat termites and nest in the wood that termites have damaged. When ants need carbohydrates, they usually gather a sugary substance called honeydew. Honeydew is produced by insects, like aphids, that suck the juices from leaves of trees and shrubs.
In the spring and summer, colonies of termites and colonies of ants produce winged insects called alates. Since these insects leave their colony by flying out in a swarm, many people call them ant swarmers and termite swarmers. At first glance, the termite swarmers look similar to the ant swarmers and homeowners are often confused.
There are three body segments that a homeowner can check to identify swarmers – the “waist”, the wings, and the antennae. (It might help to use a magnifying glass.)
Ants have a “pinched” waist. Their body is made up of three distinct segments. The body of a termite swarmer is long and slender. It looks like it is only one segment.
Ant swarmers have very large front wings. Their back wings are smaller than the front wings. Termite swarmers have front and back wings that are the same size and shape.
Ants have antennae that have a sharp bend, or “elbow”. Termites have antennae that extend straight from the head. Termite antennae resemble small beads that have been strung on a wire.
If someone is confused by swarmers or by finding white ants, it might help to call a pest control professional. An inspector can come to help with the identification. The inspector can also check for signs of an infestation. If a treatment needs to be done, the inspector can explain the options.