Anyone who has been caught in a swarm of some kind of flying insect in his or her living room has a vested interest in deciding whether they are flying ants or termites. A few pointers can help distinguish the anatomy of one swarming insect from the other. Their bodies, wings, and reproductive cycles differ, though both can pose problems to your furniture or house.
One easy difference to notice between these insects is their shape. An ant's body has three individuated segments: the head, thorax, and abdomen. The joints where they meet look like a neck and a waist. A termite's two segments, the head and the thorax, look more like one piece. Species of ants have a variety of colors, from red to brown to black, but swarming termites are usually shiny black.
Another simple anatomical difference is their wingspans. Although both kinds of insects develop two pairs of wings just to mate, reproduce, and found new colonies, their wings look dissimilar. A termite's back wings are visible beneath the overlaying front wings, and if both pairs (on a dead specimen) are stretched out, it's clear that they're actually the same length. The wings are also easy to knock off, and may be found scattered around the site of a swarm. On a flying ant, the back wings hide beneath the front wings, so they are shorter, and they have tiny, visible veins.
Their antennae are also different. If a person can get a close look, he'll see that ant's antennae curve or bend inwards, topped by a ball called a club. A termite's antennae gently point outwards without any kinks, bends, or knobs at the end.
To further identify them, people will more likely find termites around wood, where they nest and feed, such as in the rafters in the attic or old furniture. Most ants, of course, prefer the kitchen where they snack on sweets like sugar or fruit.
In their swarming or flying stage, these insects are merely fulfilling one cycle of reproduction. Ants go through a "complete" metamorphosis, which means they develop from egg to larva to pupa to adult, or "alate." During reproduction, a male winged ant mates with a female winged ant, then the male dies and the female flies to create a new colony. Termites only go through a gradual metamorphosis when they go from egg to nymph to alate. Both males and females also join each other to travel to another place.
If a homeowner determines that the bugs are termites, he may need to take measures to eliminate the infestation. Certain species of ants, too, could pose a risk to the structural integrity of a home, and carpenter ants chew up wood. In these cases, it's best for the homeowner to consult an expert in pest extermination.