Contributed by: Doug Webb
Updated on: October 17, 2022
For a homeowner, knowing the basics of termite identification can mean the difference between stopping a termite infestation early or having to make expensive repairs.
What do termites look like?
So what does a termite look like? Where do they live? How can you tell if you have termites? Here are some quick tips to help identify whether or not you have a termite infestation on your hands.
Termites range in size from one-eighth of an inch to one inch long. They can vary in shades of white, brown and black, depending on their type, species and age. Termites are sometimes confused with flying ants because both have wings and antennae.
Termites can vary greatly in appearance, depending on their species and caste, or role, in the colony.
Termite colonies are made up of several castes, including:
Workers: Take care of eggs, maintain the colony and look for food
Soldiers: Guard the colony
Reproductives (swarmers or alates): Leave the colony to mate and establish new colonies
What color are termites?
A termite's color is one of the characteristics that can help determine the species of termite swarmer you're dealing with. While termites can be black, white or brown, workers of all species are usually whitish and nearly identical.
Black termites are typically swarming termites, a termite that leaves the colony to mate and establish new colonies after sprouting wings. These types of termites will appear dark in color, generally dark brown or black.
If you spot white termites in your home, they are likely worker termites. These will only be seen if you break open a termite mud tube or inside wood that is damaged. These termites are a creamy yellow-white or very pale shade of tan and appear quite light. If you spot white worker termites, their presence may indicate that there is a termite colony attacking the structure.
Soldier termites may also be white or lighter in color. However, these termites differ slightly from worker termites in that soldiers have darker heads that have an orange coloration.
It's also important to note that termite eggs and larvae can be white or lighter in color, located inside the nests themselves. Termite eggs are often translucent, resembling small jelly beans. Once hatched, immature termite larvae have a similar color to the eggs. As they grow, they may change color, depending on their role within the colony.
Brown (Amber) Termites:
Like black termites, brown (or amber) termites are usually swarming termites. These termites may be reproductive termites (swarmers) or soldiers within the colony. Both have a tendency to be seen outside the nest, as their roles do not involve working inside the nest, as white worker termites do. It may be hard to distinguish between black and brown termites, as they can appear similar in color.
How to identify different species of termites
Subterranean termites have a wide range of colors depending on the species and caste they're in. These colors can range from pale cream to dark brown or black.
As their name suggests, these termites nest beneath the ground in the soil. They are also the most common species of termites infesting homes in the U.S.
Unfortunately, eastern subterranean termites don't care where the wood they devour comes from, and their search often brings them into our homes and businesses. They invade this wood by constructing mud tubes (or passageways) from their nests in the soil into homes where they feed on the wood structure, which over time, can cause damage. Seeing these mud tubes is a sign that you have termite activity in your home.
Workers: These soft-bodied termites are pale and cream-colored.
Soldiers: Soldiers have similar coloring to workers but with large heads that are orange or amber in color.
Reproductives: Swarming termites are darker with light brown (amber) or black bodies. The termite queen has a dark brown head and thorax with a whitish abdomen that is very enlarged. However, the termite queen is normally only found in the underground nest and is rarely ever seen.
Drywood termites are typically pale brown, but they can vary in color from light, yellowish tan to dark brown.
These termites live inside wood and get the moisture they need to survive either from the wood itself or from humidity in the air. This is why drywood termites are often found in humid, coastal areas.
Colonies of drywood termites are much smaller than those of subterranean termites, and a mature colony may have only a few hundred or few thousand members. The winged males and females mate and create new colonies in a crack or other opening in wood.
Drywood termites don't live underground, meaning they can be found in different places in your home than the subterranean termites. In addition to the presence of swarmers, piles of fecal material known as "frass" are another sign of a drywood termite invasion. When in a pile, frass can look like sawdust or sand and is frequently found near window sills and doors. Since drywood termites do not nest in the soil, mud tubes are not a sign of their presence.
One distinguishing feature of drywood termites is that they eat across the grain of wood, eating the harder layers compared to other species of termites that prefer softer layers. While these voracious termites will devour anything with cellulose found in wooden home foundation materials, you can also find signs of them in trees and fences as well.
Workers: Like subterranean termites, drywood worker termites are cream to white in color.
Soldiers: These have darker, orangish-brown heads and opaque bodies, and are much larger than subterranean soldiers.
Reproductives: Drywood swarmers have amber-colored heads and dark brown abdomens with smoky gray wings.
Formosan termites are highly destructive termites and range in color based on their caste.
Like the eastern subterranean termite, the Formosan termite lives underground. Formosan subterranean termites are in many ways more threatening than other species of subterranean termites. They're generally perceived as more aggressive when it comes to feasting on wood structures. They can eat anything containing cellulose, including wooden structures, trees, cardboard, and paper. And Formosan termite colonies generally grow quicker and are more destructive to homes.
The colony's queen can live up to 15 years, laying 2,000 eggs per day, and a mature colony can have millions of members. More termites means more members eating the wood of a structure, as well as more members foraging.
Again, as with other species of subterranean termites, visible mud tubes are a good indication of termite activity in your home.
Workers: Like other worker termites, Formosan workers are white to off-white in color.
Soldiers: These have orangish-brown heads and pale, whitish bodies. The head is oval or pear shaped, unlike the rectangular shaped heads of other common termite species.
Reproductives: Formosan swarmers are pale, yellowish-brown.
What do termites look like in the home?
Termites on wood
While it's rare to actually see termites outside of the holes they've tunneled in your walls due to their relentless search for cellulose sustenance, you may periodically see signs that termites are present in wooden structures. Look for mud tubes, discarded wings and frass outside of any small holes or tunnels in wood.
Termites in the home
You may not necessarily see termites inside your home, but you can see signs of termite damage. Look for any blistering or buckling of floors, discolored drywall, or loose tiles.
Termites in the wall
Mud tubes, small pinholes in drywall, and discarded piles of wings and/or frass outside any holds in the wall may be an indicator of termites in your walls. Additionally, look for peeling paint or wallpaper. While these signs could be from a leak or moisture, they may also be a sign that termites have nested in your walls.
What bugs can be mistaken for termites?
Some species of ants, like carpenter ants, can be mistaken for termites. Both reproductive termites and ants have wings and swarm. As mentioned, termite swarmers are darker in color than other castes of termites, and some can even be black, resembling flying ants. Because of this, it can be hard to tell the difference between ants and termites.
Termites vs. ants
To differentiate the two, note that termites have two sets of equal-length wings on their bodies, three body segments (which are not as distinct as an ant's) and straight antennae. Ants have two sets of wings that are different lengths, three distinct body segments and bent antennae.
Here are some other way termites and ants differ:
- Body: Termites have broad waists, while ants have narrow, pinched waists.
- Wings: Termite wings are equal in length, while ants have broad forewings and narrow, shorter hindwings.
- Antennae: Termites have straight antennae, while ants have bent or “elbowed" antennae.
Termites vs. powderpost beetles
Powderpost beetles don't look much like termites or ants, expect for a few general insect characteristics like having six legs. They are mistaken for termites because of the damage they cause rather than their appearance. But, if you do see one, here's what they look like:
- Size: 1/8 to 3/4 of an inch long
- Color: Ranges from reddish brown to black
- Characteristics: Slender bodies with a head that hangs downward, hidden by the cylindrical body.
Termites vs. carpenter bees
Like ants and powderpost beetles, carpenter bees are mistaken for termites because of the damage they cause to wood rather than what they look like. And similar to carpenter ants, carpenter bees don't feed on wood, but they do tunnel into it, drilling holes and creating nests. Their holes are larger than those created by carpenter ants and can be up to one half inch in diameter.
The damage caused by carpenter bees isn't as severe as that of termites, but it can cause cosmetic and sometimes even structural damage. The trouble really starts when the female carpenter bees lay eggs in the wood, forming new populations and increasing the infestations over time. The holes they put in the wood can hold water, which can eventually cause rot and decay.
As far as identifying carpenter bees is concerned, they look like bumble bees, but their abdomens are smooth and shiny instead of hairy and yellow. They also lack yellow markings on the abdomen.
If you think you have termites in your home, Terminix® can help. Get started today with a free inspection.
How do I know if I have termites?
Signs of termites can vary based on the species of termite you're dealing with. When you notice these signs, such as soft or hollow sounding wood, mud tubes, or building damage, don't wait –you should call on a termite control professional to help you deal with this potentially serious situation rather than trying any DIY treatments.
Even if you don't yet notice any signs of termites in your home, it's a good idea to have a professional annually inspect your home for termite activity, as termites feast 24/7 and are constantly foraging. Just because termites haven't invaded your home yet doesn't mean they'll always stay away.
Don't struggle with termite identification. Contact Terminix® today and schedule a free home termite inspection. When it comes to your home, you want to be sure.
Termite Identification Resources
- Are Those Termites in Your House, Or Other Bugs?
- Know the Enemy: Termite Queens
- Drywood Termites Vs. Subterranean Termites - Know Your Enemy
- Termite Structures 101: What is a Mud Tube?
- What Does A Termite Look Like?