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There are differences between winged ants and termites

June 04, 2012
  • Karen Sechler is a horticulture educator with the University of Maryland Extension in Washington County
Karen Sechler is a horticulture educator with the University of Maryland Extension in Washington County

Each spring as our plants grow, insect populations also increase. While we tend to think most insects are problematic, less than 10 percent are actually considered pests.

One example of an insect pest is the termite. Termites have an important role in our natural environment, but these wood-eating insects are unwelcome in our homes and buildings.

More than $1 billion in damage is done annually by termites. Part of the reason they cause so much damage is  they can be difficult to detect because they often chew and tunnel through wood beams and floorboards without causing any noticeable surface damage.

With a close inspection, soft or flexible wood, mud tubes, or wood-blistered areas might be observed; however, the best clue for a possible infestation is the presence of swarmers.

Swarmers are winged termites that emerge from their wooden or underground chambers in the spring in search of areas to start new colonies. While most termites in a colony are not able to reproduce, swarmers are reproductive.

If swarmers are present in a home, they tend to fly to areas with a great deal of light, such as a windowsill. Look for small, dark-colored insects with silvery colored wings. They can be easily confused with winged ants at first, but with closer inspection they can be discerned.

There are three main differences between swarmers and winged ants that can be seen using a magnifying glass.

The first difference between the two insects is the waist. Ants have a tightly restricted waist and termites do not.

Second, ants have elbowed antennae and termites have straight antennae.

Finally, flying ants have two pairs of wings of different sizes, while termites have two pairs of wings of identical size. Interestingly, termites belong to the classification order, Isoptera, which in Greek translates to equal wings.

If you find termites in your home, you might wonder how they got there. Termites are naturally found in our ecosystem; it is unlikely that they are new to your neighborhood. They had probably just been eating other things such as rotting roots, firewood or mulch.

They are productive decomposers in the forest, help aerate the soil, and provide food for birds and other wildlife. Our homes are just another source of food for them.

Go to http://hgic.umd.edu to learn ways to discouraging termites from being around your home and for pictures on how to identify them. There are two publications on the website that provide useful advice on termites.

If an infestation is suspected inside a home or building, the best control practice is to contact a professional pest company. A company should also be contacted if swarmers are found on a porch or foundation wall. Call multiple companies for inspections and estimates. Compare suggested treatment methods, warranties and references.

Karen Sechler is a horticulture educator with the University of Maryland Extension in Washington County. She can be reached by calling 301-791-1604 or by sending an email to ksechler@umd.edu.

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