Several hundred times a year, I get a call from somebody who has “something that looks like ants with wings” flying around their home.
What they are usually describing is a “nuptial swarm” of mating ants or termites. Both termites and ants are “social insects” meaning they live in large family groups with one or more reproductives or “queens.” Most ants and termites are not sexually active. When a group of ants or termites is large and healthy, it periodically produces a group of insects capable of reproduction. These queens and kings have wings allowing them to fly away from their home nest and set up a new colony elsewhere. Most reproductives die before producing offspring.
Normally, both ant and termite reproductives fly on a sunny day following a rain. The rain makes the soil softer and makes it easier for a young queen to dig a first nest. Formosan termites are an exception because they can emerge at night.
Different kinds of ants and termites emerge at different times of year. Generally, all of the ants or termites of a single species emerge on the same day or within the same few days. This year, both carpenter ants and fire ants on St. George Island have emerged in large numbers over several weeks.
If you have “flying ants” in your home or business, the most important thing to remember is to get a sample. It is impossible for me or anyone to tell the difference between ants and termites based on a verbal description from someone who isn’t trained to tell them apart.
If you are looking at a swarm and trying to identify the insect, there are several easy ways to tell termites from ants. Ants have a distinct waist; termites do not.
Ants have “elbow” antennae with two distinct segments, while termites have antennae that resemble a string of beads.
Both ants and termites, like most insects, have four wings. The wings on a termite reproductive are similar in size and shape. Winged ants have much larger wings in the front, and small triangular wings in the rear.
If you have a reproductive swarm emerge in your structure, keep a sample for a trained professional to examine. Put the insects in a bag and place it in the freezer.