Termites vs. Carpenter Ants – How To Tell the Difference


Sometimes there can be two common pests who mimic the exact same behaviors. In the case of carpenter ants vs termites, the similarities between the behaviors of the two pests can cause a great deal of confusion to the homeowner suffering an infestation.

Although both carpenter ants and termites share the same behavior traits, the insects are intrinsically different from one another, which is also evidenced by termites causing much more damage to wooden structures vs carpenter ants.

Typically, termites will infest wood to build colonies, yet the insects will also eat the wood which houses them. Carpenter ants are usually only attracted to damp wood in which to build colonies and will not eat the wood. Even though carpenter ants will not eat the wood in which they live, the insects still cause damage to wood by burrowing through the structures.

winged carpenter ant vs winged termite

What's the Difference Between Termites vs. Carpenter Ants?

Termites and carpenter ants share similar behaviors, but the insects have differences in both diet and causes relating to wood damage. Termites eat wood while carpenter ants generally do not.

How Are Termites and Carpenter Ants Different?

The main difference between termites and carpenter ants is the appearance between the two. Termites are generally only 4 to 5 millimeters in length, whereas the carpenter ant is generally 6 to 12 millimeters in length. Termites have dark to yellowish tint and can appear nearly translucent whereas carpenter ants are black, yellow, and even brown in appearance.

Termites Only Eat Cellulose – Carpenter Ants Eat Insects

Termites are herbivorous creatures in that they generally only eat the cellulose that comes from wood and paper products whereas carpenter ants eat a variety of insects and food sources. This behavior can actually serve beneficial purposes in the natural environment, but it is a nightmare when these insects decide to move into homes and eat the very foundations of a house.

Termites Are Attracted To Wood – Carpenter Ants Seek Wood for Habitation

Termites are generally attracted to moisture as well as wood; although dry wood termites are attracted to wood with very little moisture, so it depends on the particular type of termite when figuring out what attracts them. Carpenter ants, on the other hand, seek out damp wood for habitation.

It is important to remember that termites do not just eat wood, they will actually eat any items that have cellulose, including paper products, sheetrock, dry wood, and plaster. Even if they do not eat some of these materials, they can still burrow through it to reach a food source. They are attracted to moist, dark places that contain their food source and drywood termites are generally attracted to dry wood sources.

They Can Enter Your Home In Different Ways

Carpenter ants will typically enter homes by way of cracks around window seals or doors, which is made much easier for them if these entryways are left open for long periods of time. Worker carpenter ants will typically be on the move throughout the day searching for attractive spaces to establish a new colony. Moisture and decaying matter (such as food particles), along with sugary liquids are the primary substances that will be picked up by carpenter ant antennae.

Once worker carpenter ants have picked up a scent, they will then enter a home or continue foraging around porches and even roofs to find a suitable piece of wood to begin the infestation process. Due to most urban areas having plentiful populations and often damp climates, carpenter ants will be active in most areas from spring until late fall, unlike termites which are active year-round.

You can generally find them in areas of your home composed of wood that is close to the point of entry, such as window seals and the wood around door frames. If carpenter ants are left undisturbed, overflows from a crowded colony may start to branch out deep into a home seeking wood structures to forage through.

what do termites look like

How Do You Tell if You Have Termites or Carpenter Ants?

Since both species can be difficult to spot out in the open, and both species have similar behavior traits, it can indeed be difficult to tell which insect is inside of your wood. Both of these species will expel a product called ‘frass,' which is similar to sawdust in both instances, yet different in how the substance was produced between the insects.

Termites expel frass as digested wood as well as leftover wood that has been burrowed through to create tunnels. Termite frass may be accompanied by the appearance of small pellets, which are termite waste.

Carpenter ants only expel frass as chewed-up wood to get out the way as they continue burrowing through the wood to construct a colony. So, checking for pellets may help to distinguish between the two types of frass.

Termites will also cause a great deal of damage to wood over time, whereas carpenter ants will take a much longer time to start to truly damage the wood. Termites eat wood whereas carpenter ants will only destroy wood to make room for larger colonies.

Carpenter ants are also much more precise in how they construct wood to suit their own purposes, often polishing and refining wood to create perfect tunnels for colonies. Termite damage will generally appear more messy with the addition of soil and grime from the feeding process in addition to the appearance of mud tunnels and many more exit holes.

termite damage vs carpenter ant damage

How to Identify Carpenter Ant Damage vs. Termite Damage

Both insects damage wood, but it is true that termite damage will be much more extensive than what carpenter ants generally do. Termite exit holes are much more prominent in a structure than carpenter ant waste holes.

Termite damage will be all over the wood, both the interior and exterior, whereas carpenter ant damage will generally be inside, where the wood will be finely hollowed to house the colony. Additionally, carpenter ant frass will often contain the bodies of dead and partially-digested insects, whereas termite frass will be solely digested wood.

Since the damage from both insects is so similar, checking for these small differences will be key in determining which insect is present.

carpenter ant wood damage
Carpenter ant wood damage.

Which Pest is Worse – Carpenter Ants or Termites?

By and large, termites are a much worse pest to have than carpenter ants. With that said, both insects can be incredibly difficult to get rid of since both species hide deep within wood. Termites cause much more damage because they voraciously eat wood to survive on top of tunneling through it to make colonies.

Carpenter ants cause significant damage; however, it would take a great number of years to achieve the type of damage that termites can cause in a mere handful of years.

How to Tell if A Tree Has Termites or Carpenter Ants

Although carpenter ants do not eat wood, they burrow into it to make tunnels to support a colony. This means that the wood or tree can be destroyed over time due to this activity. If you notice carpenter ants inside or near a decaying tree in your yard, a pest control professional can assess the problem and attempt to salvage the tree.

Trees are the preferred habitat for carpenter ants. In fact, carpenter ants do not actually prefer going into residential homes, but food sources and overcrowding outdoors will send them on the move to find safer areas to colonize. If you notice carpenter ants in a tree in your yard, they are not actually eating the wood per se, they are simply removing the interior components of the tree to support a huge colony.

Termites will cause the same kind of damage to a tree as they would when left undisturbed indoors. The tree will become more and more hollow as time goes by and the tree will begin to collapse from being devoured.

You will usually be able to easily see carpenter ants if they are the culprit of tree damage, whereas termites will require a closer inspection of the tree to diagnose their presence.

Related Termite vs Carpenter Ant Questions

Do Carpenter Ants Eat Termites?

Carpenter ants do indeed eat termites, yet this is not a preferred method for termite excavation since the carpenter ants are also attracted to wood. Termites only eat wood, but carpenter ants require much more well-rounded diets to exist.

Best Products for Termites and Carpenter Ants

Both of these insects are hard to eradicate from a home, yet there are many products you can utilize to battle against them.

Bifen I/T by Bifen is one of the most popular termiticides on the market. This product uses bifenthrin from the pyrethroid family which is a highly toxic central nervous system antagonist to termites and many other pests as well. Bifen I/T works by attacking the nervous system of termites and spreading the poison to the rest of the colony.

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For carpenter ants, Advance Granular Carpenter Ant Bait uses an attractant to draw carpenter ants out of their colony which will subsequently poison the rest of the colony once worker ants return with the bait. This product is highly powerful and represents one of the best DIY measures for carpenter ants.

In Summary

Carpenter ants and termites are very similar in their behaviors, yet vastly different in dietary needs. It can be difficult to distinguish between the two but looking for the right kind of signs as mentioned above can make the process much easier.

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