There are specific characteristics, however, that make it easy to distinguish between the two. The termite has straight bead-like antennae, while those of ants are elbowed. The abdomen of the termite is broadly joined to the thorax (no waist), while the ant’s thorax and abdomen are joined by a narrow pedicel (wasp waist). Termite wings, both the front and the hind wings, are of equal size. The anterior (front) wings of the ant are considerably larger than the posterior (back) wings. Ants have long legs while termite legs are short.
Termites are among the most important structural insect pests in the Northwest. Only carpenter ants rival them in importance. Unlike other wood-destroying insects, termites actually use their powerful jaws to eat the wood that they encounter instead of just tunneling through it. They are able to do so because tiny, microorganisms in their stomachs convert the wood particles from cellulose (which is indigestible) to starch. Termites then convert that starch into sugar. Combine this with the fact that termites work without sleeping, and they start to sound fairly alarming. They’re working 24 hours a day to sustain a life-long sugar high!
There are two common species of termites in Washington. These include the Pacific Dampwood Termite and the Western Subterranean Termite. Most termites need moist condition to become established. For subterranean termites, the moisture source is usually the soil. For dampwood termites the moisture comes from the wet wood. The Pacific Dampwood is the specie more frequently reported here in our coastal area. This termite is our largest species; the winged forms may exceed one inch in length, including the wings. They are cream colored to dark brown.
A high moisture level is necessary for attack and establishment. Although soil contact is not necessary, wood-soil contact often leads to Dampwood termite infestation. More often, wood that has become fairly saturated due to leaky pipes or poor gutters, or damp support beams due to poor ventilation, are the primary points of infestation for these pests. Rain soaked firewood can also attract termites. They live in the wood they feed on; they do not live in the soil. Once established, these termites can extend their activities into sound wood, even relatively dry wood. As colonies mature, they produce winged reproductive termites that leave the nest in swarming flights. These flights usually occur on warm evenings in late summer or fall, especially after rains. If the proper conditions persist, the colony will continue to grow and feed, resulting in great structural damage.
Western Subterranean Termites are small in comparison to the Pacific Dampwood. They are dark brown to brownish black with brownish gray wings. Since subterranean termites live in and obtain their moisture from the soil, damp wood is not essential for attack. This makes any wood structure a potential site for subterranean termite feeding. The most frequent type of infestation is in buildings constructed near or on pre-existing nests.
Indications of subterranean termite infestation are swarming behavior, damage signs; the distinctive tapping sounds that the soldiers make when disturbed and especially by the presence of shelter “mud” tubes. These are often found on the foundation walls or in cracks. Mature colonies swarm annually, while colonies from a primary pair may not produce swarms for several years. Swarming normally takes place in the fall.
Avoiding situations that lead to dampening or rot of structural wood can prevent termite attack and establishment in most cases. Prevention can be further insured by periodic home inspections.
Finally, be a good observer. Dead termites and ants or wings around windows, doors, heating vents or in bathtubs and sinks is usually an indication of termite or ant activity somewhere inside the home.
WSU Extension has a reference publication on termites EB0787 Termite Biology, Prevention and Control. It can be downloaded online for free at http://pubs.wsu.edu or ordered by calling 1-800-723-1763.
The WSU Extension in Grays Harbor and Pacific Counties will be conducting their popular Master Gardener Training class beginning in January 2014. For additional information, including a schedule of pre-orientation presentations in your area, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone the WSU/ Grays Harbor County Extension office at: 360-482-2934