Both termites and ants live in large colonies. Both insects have several types of individuals, each serving the colony in a different way. The winged reproductive form of both termites and ants look, at first glance, to be very similar, which is where the confusion comes from.
Termites need wood for food and soil for moisture. Generally, any wood in contact with the soil is ideal for termite colony development. In nature, the termites feed on decaying tree roots and trunks. However, the wood frames of our homes are also quite tasty. Worker termites cannot survive exposure to the air, and will build mud tubes over concrete foundations in order to reach the wood.
Most ants live in the soil, and feed on various things; other insects, small dead animals, and the odd cookie or other picnic goody. Some ants build colonies in the soil near homes, because of the shelter of the concrete slab or foundation, and the ready food supply in and around our homes. When we see ants wandering through our kitchen, usually these are workers, seeking out food to bring back to the nest. However, one species of ant -- the carpenter ant -- builds its nest in hollow trees, stumps, and sometimes in the wood of our homes. Carpenter ants don't eat the wood, like termites do, but will build their nests inside it.
All ant and termite colonies will produce winged individuals. These are usually male and females that are leaving the colony to mate and start a new colony somewhere else. Termites normally only swarm during the spring, usually in April and May, but occasionally as early as March and as late as July. Ants, depending on their species, can swarm any time in the spring, summer, or fall.
It's important to know whether you have ants or termites when you see a swarm. That way, you know how and where to control the colony. To tell ant swarmers from termite swarmers, look closely at their bodies. Ants have a narrow "waist", like a wasp, while termites have a straighter body and no waist. Ants have four wings of unequal length (the front pair are longer than the back pair). Termites also have four wings, but these are all the same size, twice as long as their body. The Extension office has some publications on both termites and ants that have a picture to help you tell the difference.
If you see a swarm outside your home, there is not necessarily a cause for alarm. The insects may have a colony in the soil outside your home, possibly near a decaying tree, or from landscape timbers or firewood piles. However, if you find the swarm inside your house, you have a good chance of having a colony living inside your structure. You'll want to look for other signs of infestation, including the mud tubes I mentioned earlier, or decaying infested wood.
If you discover that the termites or ants are actually living inside your home, the very first thing you should do is DO NOT PANIC! Termites are slow feeders, and it takes many years of infestation before your home is seriously damaged. The same goes for carpenter ants. Take your time to identify what's going on, and begin looking for a pest control company.
This is one (actually, two) of those cases where you really can't treat the problem yourself. You need to hire a professional company, who can examine the structure, determine where the colony is nesting, and how large the colony is. The professionals have the chemicals, and the equipment to get the chemicals to where the colony is. The do-it-yourself products, including the new termite baits, are not very effective when used by untrained people. You risk lulling yourself into a false sense of security by trying to treat this yourself.
How do you hire a good pest control company? First, get 2 or 3 estimates, and read their literature. Avoid firms that try to pressure you into signing a contract immediately with "specials" or scare tactics. Check to see that the applicators carry valid pesticide applicator licenses; the Structural Pest Control Commission can check on the status of an applicator's license, or that of their company. We won't, however, recommend for or against any specific company.
Since termite colonies can be quite large and hard to pinpoint, initial treatments of the whole foundation may be necessary. Spot treatments, while cheaper, may not target the entire colony. The products used should last at least 5 years, depending on soil type and other factors (the days of life-time control are gone, ever since Chlordane was banned). Be sure that proper identification of the pest is made. Most companies will treat, and charge, for termites and carpenter ants differently. Your swarming insects can be brought to the Cooperative Extension Service for identification; we may need to send them on to the Entomology Department in Tucson for final identification.
Termite Control Options
Most people are concerned with control options. The standard recommendation for termite control has always been call a professional exterminator. The professionals will inject insecticide into the ground around the house, and will also drill through the slab and foundations of your house, to get the material underneath as well. The benefits of having a professional do this include they have access to the insecticides that are legally labeled for termite control in and around structures, they have the equipment to apply the insecticides where the colony is likely to be, and they have the training to know how to use these products in a manner that poses the least risk to your family and to the environment.
Some people are reluctant to call a professional, though. The chief reason is expense. These companies are expensive, but I'd like to think you get what you pay for. After all, you are paying for their knowledge and training, as well as the chemical. You may be able to find a consumer product that is labeled for termite control, but it's highly doubtful you will have the equipment to apply it correctly, or will know how to locate the colony. And, considering what your house is worth, isn't it a good idea to protect it properly?
Another concern people have is the idea that chemicals are being applied in, under, and around their homes. They are concerned about their family's health, and whether the product is harming the environment or the groundwater. In general, a properly applied product should pose little threat to your family. The insecticide is being applied underground, where you should not be coming in contact with it. Also, the only living creature that will be found under and in the foundation is the termite -- there shouldn't be any earthworms or other beneficial insects under there. Finally, with a properly built home and a properly applied product, the chemical shouldn't be moving away from the foundation and into the ground water.
A new alternative to standard insecticides is the use of termite baits. These baits first became available to commercial pest control companies in 1995. A bait station (a plastic tube with slotted openings, filled with yummy wood slivers, and placed in a plastic, child-proof housing) is installed underground around the perimeter of the house every 10 to 20 feet. The stations are checked at monthly intervals by the pest control company.
When termite activity is noticed (the wood is being eaten), the bait stations are replaced with wood impregnated with a slow-acting insecticide. Either an insect growth regulator, which prevents termites from molting as they grow, or a slow-acting stomach poison are used, depending on which system your company uses. When a bait station is found to have feeding activity, additional bait stations are placed in the area, and checked more frequently.
The insecticide-treated wood is designed to be ingested by the foraging workers and carried back to the colony. The colony is slowly poisoned or killed. This could take several months to a year; you will need to have your exterminator back frequently to monitor the bait stations and replace them as needed.
The main advantage to using the commercial bait stations is the safety issue. Rather than drenching a large area with an insecticide, smaller amounts of product are directed toward where termite feeding activity is located. The products used are generally specific to insects, and should pose little risk to humans and animals. Also, there is no need to drill into the foundation or treat indoors with the baits.
The main disadvantage to the bait stations is the length of time required for control. It will take several months to a year before the colony is eliminated. Because of the frequent monitoring, this system tends to be much more expensive than traditional insecticides.
I don't recommend that homeowners buy do-it-yourself termite kits, even if they appear to be cheaper. First, most homeowners are not trained to identify termite activity. There is the concern that homeowners will not scout their bait stations regularly enough, and replace them as often as they should for as many months as will be necessary. Some home-supply companies don't carry the kits year-round. And even though the initial kit may be cheaper than the initial visit by the pest control company, after 6 months to a year of buying and replacing the bait stations, the cost savings aren't as great as they appear.
Information provided by Larry Caplan, Extension Educator -- Horticulture, Purdue Cooperative Extension Service.