What Do Termites Look Like?

closeup of termite

The expression “eating you out of your house” can take on a literal meaning when you’re dealing with termites. These wood-eating pests love to chow down on wooden structures and chew through drywall. If you suspect your home has a termite infestation, you need to know what termites look like. If you see any at all, you’ll most likely see worker termites, which are under 1/2 inch long and creamy white. 

Severe termite infestations cause extensive structural damage that can render your house unsafe and uninhabitable. We’ll explore the identifying characteristics of termites so that once you’ve identified what pest infestation ails your home, you can treat the problem.

What Do Termites Look Like?

graphic showing anatomy of a termite
Photo Credit: Juan Rodriguez

Termites are classified in the order Blattodea (formerly Isoptera), making them a relative of the cockroach. Like any other type of insect, they have a body that is segmented into 3 parts: head, thorax, and abdomen. They can be identified by several features:

  • 2 straight antennae
  • Swarmer termites have 2 pairs of wings of identical size
  • 6 short legs
  • Thick waist
  • Most wingless termites are blind; winged termites (reproductives) have compound eyes

While you are trying to identify if the pests invading your home are termites, look for these identifying characteristics:

Appearance: Termites have soft bodies that look plump and squishy. 

Color: Colors differ depending on a termite’s species and role in the colony: Workers have a whitish color and are the most numerous within each colony. Soldiers range from cream to a light brown color. Winged termites have black or brown coloration.

Size: About 1/8 to 1/2 inch long. Some soldiers are around 3/4 inch, including their elongated head and jaws. Termite queens are larger and can grow up to or over 1 inch long. Most termites are roughly the size of an ant.

Termite Life Cycle and Lifespan

There are three stages of development in a termite’s life cycle:

  1. Egg: Termite eggs look like pill-shaped ovals. The eggs are a translucent, glossy white. On average, they are a mere 0.5 mm long. You won’t see termite eggs out in the open since they are kept in an incubation chamber. They are very difficult to spot and might look like a pile of powder to the human eye.
  2. Nymph: Unlike butterflies and many other insects, termites go through an incomplete metamorphosis. After hatching, they merely look like a smaller, mini version of an adult termite. 
  3. Adult: Most termites are workers, which are white and have a grub-like appearance. However, adult appearances vary depending on their caste or role in the colony. For example, soldiers have large mandibles and swarmers have wings.

Termites also differ in appearance depending on their age, although you are most likely to see adult termites, since eggs and nymphs are normally hidden out of sight.

Termites live from one to 35 years, so if you’re waiting for the termites in your house to die out on their own, don’t bother. Termites live a surprisingly long time for insects. Termite lifespans vary depending on their caste role:

  • A queen can live 10-35 years. 
  • Kings usually live a decade or more.
  • Workers and soldiers live about one year, though they can live up to a few years.
  • Swarmers live up to four years.

How to Identify Termites of Different Castes

graphic showing caste of termite
Photo Credit: Juan Rodriguez

Termites are social critters that form large colonies. Within these colonies, termites are sorted into three castes, each with a different role. The caste roles consist of workers, soldiers, and swarmers, and a termite’s physical characteristics differ depending on which caste they are in.

Worker Termites

worker termites on a soil
Worker Termites
Photo Credit: Katja Schulz / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

If you spot any termites, they are most likely workers, since they are the most numerous termites in a colony. Usually, worker termites make up 80-98% of a termite colony. 

A worker has many responsibilities, from caring for the young to tending to the queen and the soldiers. Because of roles such as building tunnels and foraging for food, they are the most destructive type of termite.

Workers usually are translucent and their coloration is either white or cream. Unlike ant workers, who are all female, termite workers can be male or female.

Soldier Termites

termite image with white background
Soldier Termite
Photo Credit: dextorTH / Canva Pro / License

Armed with sharp mandibles and the ability to squirt a liquid to fend off predators, soldier termites protect the workers and reproductives from other insects, like ants, that threaten the colony. Usually, termite soldiers make up less than 5% of the colony’s population. Workers and soldiers are typically less than 1/2 inch long.

Soldiers’ heads are longer than worker termites’ heads. Soldiers can be cream, white, or brown and their bodies are usually slightly translucent. A soldier’s elongated head will be a darker color than the rest of its body, a caramel or orange color. Their mandibles give them a menacing look.

Swarmer Termites

Swarmer Termites
Photo Credit: Vinicius Rodrigues de Souza / Canva Pro / License

You’ll be able to recognize a termite swarmer by its wings, since workers and soldiers don’t have wings. Swarmers, also known as reproductives or alates, are winged termites. Their primary job is mating and producing eggs. 

Large colonies produce swarms of these alates, and these flying termites eventually set off on their own to establish new colonies. Once a pair of swarmers mate, they lose their wings and become the king and queen of their own colony.

If you see brown termites or black termites, they are likely reproductive termites. Swarmers are 1/4 to 1/2 inch long, including their wingspan. Queens can be larger, as their abdomen can grow up to an inch long, or even longer for some species. Swarmers have functional eyes that help them fly from the colony of their birth and find a mate.

How to Identify Termite Queens

queen termite with lots of queen
Termite Queen
Photo Credit: Atelopus / Canva Pro / License

A termite queen has an elongated, large abdomen; its pale color makes her look a bit like a slug. Young queens might look merely like a swarmer that has lost its wings, but over time, a queen’s abdomen grows larger as her egg-laying capacity increases. 

In established colonies, some termite queens lay thousands of eggs a day. It’s not likely that you’ll see the queen, since a queen termite lives deep underground or hidden behind wooden walls in a termite nest, and she won’t be sitting in plain sight.

How to Identify Different Types of Termites

Not every type of termite likes living in wood; some make their homes in the soil and build mud tubes along the foundation to reach your house. The three most common house termites in the United States are subterranean, drywood, and formosan termites. 

With over 3,000 known species of termites (only 45 or so live in the U.S.), all of them look slightly different and each one has distinctive identifying characteristics. To best understand what kind of pest infestation you are dealing with, it helps if you can determine what type of termite is invading your property.

Dampwood Termites

closeup of Dampwood termites
Pacific dampwood termite (Zootermopsis angusticollis)
Photo Credit: Judy Gallagher / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Here are the identifying characteristics of dampwood termites:

  • Larger than many other species of termites
  • Their color is dark or light brown, sometimes red or tinged with a reddish hue
  • Nymphs are cream-colored
  • Kings and queens measure 1/2 to 5/8 inches long
  • Soldiers are approximately 3/4 inches long
  • Often found in California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, or Washington

Drywood Termites

Drywood termites closeup
Western drywood termite (Incisitermes minor)
Photo Credit: Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University, Bugwood.org / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

Here’s some of the common identifying traits of drywood termites:

  • Cream or brown termites. Some have a yellowish or reddish-brown color.
  • 3/8 inches to 1/2 inch long
  • Found in coastal climates, namely the coast of California or along the coast of Southern states

Higher Termites

group of conehead termites on wood
Photo Credit: Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University, Bugwood.org / Ipmimages

Higher termites include species such as conehead termites (aka tree termites) and Florida darkwinged subterranean termites. Conehead termites (Nasutitermes corniger) are an economically significant type of higher termite in the U.S., as they can cause significant damage to structures. Here are some of the conehead termites’ identifying traits:

  • Winged reproductives have deep brown bodies and brown to black wings; soldiers have dark brown to black, bulb-shaped heads and brown bodies; workers have creamy white bodies and slightly darker heads.
  • Reproductives, wings included, range from 0.5 to 0.7 inches; workers and soldiers are around 1/8 inch.
  • Conehead soldier termites have uniquely-shaped mandibles that end in a single point.
  • Found in Dania Beach, Florida in 2001. State officials have been working to contain the spread and prevent coneheads from expanding into other areas of the state or beyond.

Subterranean Termites

Subterranean termites on ground
Native subterranean termites (Reticulitermes virginicus)
Photo Credit: Gerald J. Lenhard, Louisiana State University, Bugwood.org / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 3.0

There are several common types of subterranean termites, including the Eastern subterranean termite and the Western subterranean termite. Here are the identifying traits of subterranean termites:

  • Brown, black, cream, or white colors
  • 1/8 to 3/8 inches long on average
  • Swarmers measure 1/4 to 1/2 inch long
  • They live in all states except Alaska, but they are most often found in the Southeast, Hawaii, and California where it’s warmer.

Termites vs. Ants

illustration showing termite and ant illustration
Photo Credit: Juan Rodriguez

Termites can often be mistaken for winged ants, since ants and termites are roughly the same length and size, which is one reason telling termites apart from ants can be tricky. Termites have even earned the nickname “white ants.”

There are a few distinguishing characteristics that will help you tell flying ants apart from termites (see illustration above) and determine what type of pest problem is plaguing your home. 

If you find any dead termites on the floorboards or window sills or are able to capture a live termite, use a magnifying glass to look at the features of the captured termite, or take it to your local Cooperative Extension department for identification. Try to spot identifying features such as bent antennae or two identical pairs of wings. 

How Much Does Termite Control Cost?

You’ve discovered a termite infestation in your house, now what? The next step is to call one of the best pest control companies and get them to treat your home right away. Remember, the sooner, the better, since every minute wasted allows termites to cause further damage to your home.

Expect termite treatment to cost from $275 to $863. Hiring a termite exterminator may seem costly, but termite damage can result in home repairs that cost even more than that.

However, if you have suspicions that there might be a termite nest in your house but you don’t know how to confirm it, then you can have your home inspected for termites. On average, a professional termite inspection costs $135.

FAQ About What Termites Look Like

How Do You Know If You Have Termites?

shelter tubes Photo originally from the Wood Products Insect Lab in Gulfport, Mississippi.
Photo Credit: USDA Forest Service – Wood Products Insect Lab , USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org / Ipmimages

Termites are shy insects who often hide out of sight, although you might catch sight of swarmers or workers if there is a termite colony settled in your home. Here are some signs of a termite infestation you should keep an eye out for:

It may surprise some homeowners to learn that sawdust is not a sign of a termite infestation. Termites don’t leave behind fine wood shavings since they eat the wood. However, they leave behind termite feces, known as frass, which look similar to sawdust. 

What Attracts Termites to the House?

Moisture and firewood stacks against your home draw termites to your house with the promise of a cozy nesting spot, so keep firewood stored a distance away from your abode, at least 20-30 feet. Potential food sources, such as dead trees, fallen tree branches, wood mulch, or tree stumps, also attract termites, which will come seeking the cellulose in the wood.

Do Termites Bite People?

No, although soldiers are capable of biting, termites do not normally bite people, as they are not aggressive towards humans. Even if termites bite, it will be very small and harmless and shouldn’t leave a mark. 

Hire a Pro to Deal with Your Termite Problem

Now you know how to identify a termite and distinguish between the workers, soldiers, and swarmers. Proper termite identification will help you plan the best way to treat your termite infestation and stop them from chewing up the wood in your house.

If you detect signs of termite activity in your house, you should call a pest control professional immediately to inspect your home. If these creepy crawlies are the stuff of nightmares that you don’t want to deal with, let Pest Gnome connect you with a local termite control professional to get rid of your pest problem for you.

Main Image Credit: BankerFotos / Canva Pro / License

Danielle Gorski

Danielle Gorski lives with her family in Texas. She has a degree in Professional Studies and a minor in marketing. Her hobbies include reading, drawing, and writing.