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A Comparison of Winged Carpenter Ants and Termites

by Jack DeAngelis, PhD of

As weather warms in spring both carpenter ant colonies and termite nests may release winged insects called “reproductives”. While both insects are wingless in most life stages, at certain times of the year, and under certain colony conditions, winged ants and termites are released. These winged forms are the mating and dispersal stage for their respective species. People often don't recognize these winged forms or appreciate their significance. While carpenter ants tend to be more important as structural pests in temperate areas and termites in tropical or warm arid areas, both can occur in the same region.

Winged vs. wingless carpenter ants

Winged carpenter ants (above) are fairly large and robust insects. They are strong fliers in contrast to winged termites (below) which are somewhat fragile and tend to flutter when they fly. When termite colonies release winged forms they often do so in mass mating flights. Termites might be seen to “pour” out of an existing colony. Large numbers of winged termites found indoors probably indicate that a colony has penetrated the wall space. This condition warrants an inspection by a pest control company. Likewise large numbers of carpenter ants (winged or not) found indoors may indicate a colony in the walls or floor.

Winged subterranean termite

Winged carpenter ants are not necessarily a threat to your home. Ants often fly into homes through open doors and windows or into crawlspaces and attics, lose their wings and crawl around indoors looking for a place to set up a colony. Finding a few large ants indoors concerns homeowners and they frequently jump to the mistaken conclusion that the house is infested. The chance that a lone queen will locate a suitable nest site is small. But, if a colony is successfully started it will be several years, at least, before the colony is large enough to be noticed and cause any damage. This is why yearly inspections are so important - to detect and eliminate any colonies before they have a chance to grow large enough to do damage.

Winged termite reproductives flutter off in search of suitable nesting sites. They don't often enter homes from outside. When a site is found the pair start a new colony. Termites require wood as a food source. Subterranean termites require wood that is usually buried in the soil. Colonies start slowly but eventually may extend their colony into structural wood by way of mud shelter tubes (“mud tubes”). Subterranean termites often are detected by the presence of these tubes extending from the soil into the structure.

The bottom line - the presence of winged termites or winged carpenter ants, unless it occurs indoors, does not, in and of itself, increase the threat to your home. Stay vigilant and do your yearly, or twice-yearly, inspections!

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