illustration of termite anatomy

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.

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 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 and age.
  • Termites are sometimes confused with flying ants because both have wings and antennae.
  • 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.

how to identify termites

What color are termites?

If you're a homeowner, you may see insects in your home and start to wonder what they are. Are they termites? You may wonder "what color are termites?" 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

A termite's color is one of the characteristics that can help determine the species of termite swarmer you're dealing with. However, workers of all species are nearly identical.

What do these termites look like to the human eye? Here is how to identify the three major species of termites in the United States:

How to identify different species of termites

Subterranean Termites

Subterranean termites have a wide range of colors depending on the caste they're in. These colors can range from pale cream to dark brown or black.

subterranean termite photo

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 a lot of 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 brown 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

Drywood termites are typically pale brown, but they can vary in color from light, yellowish tan to dark brown.

drywood termite photo

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.

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 windowsills and doors. Since drywood termites do not nest in the soil, mud tubes are not a sign of their presence.

Workers: Like subterranean termites, drywood worker termites are cream to white in color.

Soldiers: These have darker, orangish-brown heads and opaque bodies.

Reproductives: Drywood swarmers have amber-colored heads and dark brown abdomens with smoky gray wings.

Formosan Termites

Formosan termites are highly destructive termites and range in color based on their caste.

formosan termite photo

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. This is in large part due to the potential size of their colonies. 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 devouring 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.

Reproductives: Formosan swarmers are pale, yellowish-brown.

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. However, if you know what to look for, it's easy to tell them apart.

  • 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.

If you think you have termites in your home, Terminix® can help. Get started today with a free inspection.

Where do termites live?

  • Most common termites in the United States are the native subterranean termites. Other types found in the United States are drywood termites and Formosan termites, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • Termites live in colonies, which take time to form and grow, according to the State University Extension.
  • Termites like moist areas, with high humidity.
  • Termites eat cellulose, which is found in plants and trees. This is why the structural lumber of your house is the main reason termites enter. They’ll also eat or chew through other building materials in the process of foraging, such as insulation, plastics, fabrics and carpet (not to mention your furniture).

How do I know if I have termites?

  • Soft or hollow-sounding wood
  • Mud tubes with white, squishy insects inside them or swarms of flying termites
  • Building damage

These signs of termites can vary based on the species of termite you're dealing with. When you notice these signs, 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