4 Bugs That Look Like Termites

Are you so sure the flying bug you just saw isn’t a termite that you’re willing to bet $3,000? That’s the average cost of termite damage repair. There are four bugs that look like termites, or cause damage that looks like the work of termites, and maybe that flying insect you saw is one of those.

Misidentify a termite or its signs of damage, and you risk treating your home for the wrong pest. You could also be ignoring another costly and damaging situation.

Winged termites are easy to confuse with winged ants due to their strikingly similar appearance. But there are three other bugs which make homeowners think they have termites.

And keep in mind, it’s not always their appearance that has us confusing these four bugs with termites. It’s the signs of damage from these pests that are often mistaken for the wood holes, pellets and frass that signal a termite infestation.

1. Carpenter Ants

A male carpenter ant
A male carpenter ant / Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren / CC BY 2.0

Winged ants are easy to mistake for termites, particularly carpenter ants. Both are similar in size and shape. Both also tend to gather in large groups as ant swarmers and termite swarmers gather to find mates.

Keep in mind: While black carpenter ants exist throughout the eastern U.S., termites live in every state except Alaska.

Subterraneum termites
Native subterranean termite (Reticulitermes virginicus) / Gerald J. Lenhard, Louisiana State University, Bugwood.org / CC BY-SA 3.0

Body: Carpenter ants have a narrow waist and three distinct segments. An easy comparison for this body type is a wasp. Termites have a broad waist. This broad waist makes termites look like they only have a two-segmented body, even though they have three.

Color: Winged termites and carpenter ants are similar in color, both appearing as black, brown, or reddish.

Antennae: Both termites and carpenter ants have antennae. Yet a carpenter ant’s antennae are elbowed in the middle, while a termite has straight antennae.

Wings: Both have two sets of wings, but a carpenter ant’s wings are approximately equal to the length of its body, and the front and back wings are different lengths. A termite’s wings are almost twice as long as its body, and all four wings are the same size.

Damage

Termites and carpenter ants both damage your wooden structures, but signs of each can differ. Carpenter ants typically create cone-like piles of shredded wood debris (frass) outside their nest. The ants then push the frass out of their tunnels as they excavate.

Drywood termites use “kick holes” or “kick-out” holes to dispose of their dry fecal pellets. These fecal pellets tend to accumulate outside of an infested area and are among the first signs of a drywood termite infestation. Visible kick-out holes are also a sign of termite damage.

The carpenter ant’s tunnel gallery has smooth, clean inner surfaces that usually appear as if they have been sanded. Termite galleries usually contain soil or fecal matter.

Mud tubes are another sign of a termite infestation. Unlike carpenter ants, subterranean termites build mud tubes that act as passageways between the soil they live in and the wood they eat.

Causes of infestation

Carpenter ants typically enter the home through small cracks or crevices near a window, door, siding, or flooring. They begin their nest by burrowing into moist, damaged wood. These ants also infest areas with insulation.

Risk

Carpenter ants can cause severe damage to your wooden structures and establish large colonies. Carpenter ants also have powerful jaws that can give a painful bite when threatened. They may even spray a defensive chemical of formic acid into the wound, increasing the pain. 

A swarm of winged carpenter ants inside your home may indicate a 3- to 4-year-old infestation. By the time you notice it, it’s likely the swarm has already caused

2. Carpenter Bees

Carpenter bee
Eastern carpenter bee / Judy Gallagher / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
Carpenter bee hole in cedar looks almost like a birdhouse hole.
Carpenter bee hole in cedar pergola / NY State IPM Program at Cornell University / CC BY 2.0

Carpenter bees, unlike termites, are independent insects. Each female carpenter bee has her own private nest inside her wood tunnel. More than one carpenter bee can occupy the same piece of wood, but they still live independently.

Carpenter bees create funneling holes, usually half an inch in diameter. Not only do these bugs look like termites, their nest is also often mistaken for a drywood termite “kick-out“ hole. Look closer, though. Termite kick-out holes are typically 1 mm in size, making them much smaller than a carpenter bee’s funneling hole. 

Below the carpenter bee’s funneling hole, you’ll see piles of yellow sawdust material. As the female carpenter bee prepares her nest, she pushes this chewed wood out of the tunnel. She also produces sticky yellow waste that gathers outside the tunnel’s entrance. This waste may appear as a dark yellow stain on your wooden structure.

Carpenter bees live across the southern United States from Arizona to Florida and in the eastern U.S., north to New York.

Causes of infestation

Carpenter bees find your unpainted, weathered wood an especially attractive place to build their nests. They prefer softwoods such as redwood, cypress, cedar, oak, and pine. 

Risk

A single carpenter bee won’t significantly damage your woodwork, but if carpenter bees continue to nest in your wood and reuse previous nests, they’ll weaken the wood or cause a cosmetic issue.

Carpenter bees’ blaring, reverberating buzz can frighten many people, but it’s no cause for alarm. It’s often the male carpenter bee swirling and diving around you that creates that echoing hum.

Male carpenter bees don’t have stingers, so their buzz is worse than their bite. Female carpenter bees have stingers, but they don’t attack humans unless they feel threatened.

3. Powderpost Beetles

An anobild beetle, also known as a powderpost beetle
An anobild beetle, often called a powderpost beetle / Shutterstock

Powderpost beetles, like termites, create small holes in wooden parts of your home or that woodpile by your shed. The most common type of powderpost beetles? The Anobiid, also known as furniture beetles. These beetle infestations are most common in the southeastern and coastal states where humidity and temperatures are high.

While drywood termites use these holes to push out their fecal pellets, powderpost beetles chew out these holes to exit the nest after it’s built. Powderpost beetle exit holes are typically 1/32- to 1/8-inch in diameter.

These pesky beetles reduce wood to a flour-like powder. This powder may stream from the exit holes or collect on the ground beneath the wood.

An infested wooden structure typically will have many of these powdery exit holes, giving the wood a shot-hole appearance. If you investigate further by cutting the infested wood, you’ll find fine powder inside.

When moisture in wood is high, particularly in spring and summer, you may hear clicking sounds made by large larvae inside infested wood. The University of Maryland Extension recommends using a stethoscope to diagnose a carpenter bee infestation.

Causes of infestation

Powderpost beetles seek out damp wood. They usually infest basements, barns, seasoned firewood, and lumber stored outdoors.

You also may find these beetles infesting flooring, trim, furniture, and picture frames. Entomologists at Cornell University suspect these beetles spread when wood or furniture containing eggs or larvae are brought into the home.

Risk

Powderpost beetles do nearly as much damage as termites. They most often attack sub-flooring, hardwood flooring, joists, sills, plates, and interior trim. 

Yes, breathe a sigh of relief you’re not dealing with termites, but it’s crucial you get rid of your powderpost beetle problem to protect the structure of your home.

4. Acrobat Ants

Acrobat ants
 Acrobat ants are bugs that look like termites  Photo credit: Judy Gallagher /  CC BY 2.0

Acrobat ants get their name from carrying their abdomen’s hind portion above the rest of their body. When disturbed, they may raise the hind further over the thorax and resemble tiny spiders. These ants range from yellow to dark brown in color and have a heart-shaped abdomen that’s usually darker than the rest of the body.

Acrobat ants nest in areas previously inhabited by another pest, and will gladly set up shop in an old carpenter ant or termite home. They prefer to nest in wooden structures but can live in areas with foam insulation. Acrobat ants push frass out of their tunnels, which many homeowners can mistake as a sign of termites.

These ants are found throughout the southeastern United States.

Pro tip: Because acrobat ants will take over an old nest, you may see signs of termite damage where the ants are nesting.

Causes of infestation

Acrobat ants make their way into the home by traveling on tree limbs to enter through small cracks or holes around windows and doors. They also travel along utility lines to access the structural openings that wires and pipes enter. Acrobat ants will then establish their nests in wood with high moisture.

Risk

These bugs look like termites, but acrobat ants bite, sting, or emit an unpleasant odor when threatened. They don’t cause as much wood damage as carpenter ants or termites, but they can short circuit your electrical system.

When to Call a Professional

Call a local pest control professional if you see damaged wood and stray ants, beetles, or termites. An exterminator will identify the pest, determine the extent of the damage, and provide proper treatment.

It will cost you more to get rid of termites than the look-alikes. The damage may also be more extensive. If your house is infested by one of the four bugs often confused with termites, solving your pest problem will likely cost you much less.

Don’t gamble with your home’s wood. Termite damage is expensive to repair. Proper identification will help you get the termites, carpenter ants, carpenter bees, powderpost beetles, and acrobat ants out of your home faster and save your home from further damage.

Main image: Pacific dampwood termite / Judy Gallagher / CC BY 2.0

Jane Purnell

Jane Purnell

Jane Purnell is a freelance writer and actor in New York City. She earned her B.A. from the University of Virginia and enjoys a warm cup of French press coffee.