What Do Carpenter Ants Look Like: Our Guide

Photo of a carpenter ant

You might have seen them walking (or flying) around at this time because ants start becoming active during the months of spring and summer after hibernating for the winter. While they may seem harmless, there are ants that can actually cause mayhem to your property, namely carpenter ants.

So, what do carpenter ants look like? We're giving you the 411 on how to identify carpenter ants and the possible damages that a carpenter ant infestation might inflict on your property.

What Do Carpenter Ants Look Like?

Carpenter ant on branch

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Perhaps the most glaring quality of a carpenter ant is its size. Carpenter ants (scientific name: Camponotus spp.) usually measure from 6 millimeters to 12 millimeters in length. However, carpenter ants are also polymorphic; this means that each colony may have varying sizes of carpenter ants.

Other unique identifying factors include a rounded thorax, a single node at the waist (although there are other single-node ants such as large yellow ants, house ants, field ants, and crazy ants), a bent antenna, and six legs which are longer compared to other ants. Carpenter ants are mostly (if not entirely) black in coloring, but there are also species that are reddish.

What do carpenter ants look like as compared to regular ants? A regular ant is significantly smaller than a carpenter ant (they are only approximately .2 inches in length). The queen ant is about twice the size of its workers at .4 inches. Regular ants also prefer to live in the soil or at the base of walls. Their nests usually appear as earthen mounds, and they prefer to live outside of your home.

On the other hand, carpenter ants prefer to live inside moist or decaying wood such as the structural lumber of your house (e.g. windows, window ledges, hollow doors, etc.) This is why carpenter ants can cause more damage to your property compared to regular ants.

How Do Carpenter Ants Build Their Nest?

carpenter ants on leaf

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The primary role of carpenter ants is to build nests using their mandibles for excavation. They usually prefer moist and decaying wood — they can be seen building nests in trees, woodpiles, mulch, and wooden structures or buildings. Carpenter ants are also capable of creating expansive tunneling systems, often found in trees.

These tunnels usually include a central or parent colony which is sustained by surrounding satellite colonies. Carpenter ants build primary nests in high humidity because the eggs are sensitive to environmental humidity. Besides eggs, the primary nest houses the queen ant, newly hatched larvae, and worker ants.

Once a primary nest becomes established, carpenter ants also build satellite nests to provide shelter for older larvae, pupae, and a number of winged ants. These satellite nests are constructed in various locations which do not have high humidity because it is no longer required for mature larvae and pupae to grow.

The eggs of carpenter ants can be identified by their oval shape and cream coloring. The larvae do not have legs and transform into adult ants during the pupal stage.

What Do Carpenter Ants Feed On?

The tunneling systems that carpenter ants build often lead to aphid colonies where the ants can extract and consume honeydew. Carpenter ants also scavenge for food or feed on prey. They feed on dead insect parts or substances acquired from other insects. Carpenter ants also consume sweet liquids such as nectar, juices, syrup, and honey with proteins and carbohydrates as their main food sources.

How Do Carpenter Ants Collect Food For The Colony?

Red carpenter ants on soil and moss

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Carpenter ants can look for food individually or in groups. They usually hunt for food at night — collecting and consuming both live and dead insects although they prefer to collect bodily fluids from dead ones to take back to the nest. They can also take the chitinous head of the insect to the nest in order to extract the inner tissue.

Upon finding a food source, the workers communicate this information to the rest of the colony by using pheromones to mark the shortest route from the nest to the food source. As more workers follow the route, the cue is further strengthened and a foraging trail is established.

When contending for a food source with another organism, carpenter ants have developed systematic mechanisms in order to maximize food allocation. They achieve these through different means — by colonizing an area near a food source or by making alternate trips to the food supply individually or in groups. They also frequent areas where food supplies are dense in order to minimize resources for their competitors.

​Are There Winged Carpenter Ants?

Head of a black and orange carpenter ant

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What do carpenter ants look like with wings? Carpenter ants with wings are called carpenter ant swarmers, and they are even larger compared to carpenter ants. They have unequal wing lengths, with the front wings longer than the back wings. These winged carpenter ant swarmers are tasked to reproduce and start a new nest in another location. They are often seen on windows or window ledges.

The male and female (also called queens) winged carpenter ant swarmers, or alates, go on a nuptial flight during warm and humid conditions to mate. Here, the females release pheromones in order to attract their male counterparts. Mating is accomplished while in flight, with the queens having intercourse with several males in the process.

A special organ called the spermatheca stores the sperm in a queen's abdomen which lasts throughout her lifetime. The sperm can last for as long as 20 years and can be used to fertilize millions of eggs. After accomplishing this perfunctory and reproductive task, the males die while the fertilized females lose their wings and look for areas to create new primary nests.

After establishing the nest, the queen lays and nurtures around 20 eggs until they grow into worker ants. These worker ants then assist the queen to care for larvae as she lays more eggs. In a few years, new swarmers will be born and will repeat the cycle of mating, reproducing, and creating new colonies.

However, there is also an extremely high failure rate among young and newly fertilized queens. This is why millions of female carpenter ant swarmers are sent to do the deed at one time. On average, only one of them succeeds while others perish because of predators or environmental hazards.

How Are Winged Carpenter Ants Different From Termites?

Black carpenter ant on a leaf

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If both have wings, what do carpenter ants look like as compared to termites? Unlike termites, carpenter ants do not consume wood because they are incapable of digesting cellulose. Carpenter ants only use the wood to build nests and tunnels, often with insect parts.

In terms of physical attributes, termites are smaller than carpenter ants (about the size of a dime at the largest) and have relatively thicker waists, straight antennae, and shorter legs. The termite's front and back wings are also of the same length.

How Can You Distinguish A Carpenter Ant Infestation From A Termite Infestation?

What do carpenter ants look like in terms of an infestation? A carpenter ant infestation can often be found in windows, hollow doors, and other types of structural lumber which are often moist or decaying. Termites prefer dry wood, as opposed to moist and decaying wood where carpenter ants thrive. While carpenter ants produce coarse sawdust when boring small holes, termites produce a finer type of sawdust.

Hollowed-out wood infested by carpenter ants usually appears smooth in the inside while those of termites contain soil or mud in them. Wood shavings, debris, and dead insects are often found in nest openings of carpenter ant-infested wood, while termites produce fecal pellets that are consistent both in size and shape.

Can Carpenter Ants Cause Destruction And Structural Damage?

Despite using wood only for building and nesting purposes, carpenter ants are still capable of causing structural damage. While the damage may not be as extensive as a termite infestation, a carpenter ant infestation can still cause significant structural damage in the long run, when left untreated.

Finding piles of wood shavings in your property or winged ants emerging from crevices, walls, and ceilings are glaring signs of a severe carpenter ant infestation.

​Conclusion

While identifying a carpenter ant from a termite might be tricky, the identifying factors we've elaborated on will help you distinguish the differences between two. Knowing both the physical and behavioral attributes of carpenter ants will also help you identify them better from termites.

To answer the question, “what do carpenter ants look like?” may require a discerning eye and a closer inspection that can only be done by a pest control professional. However, knowing how to identify “what do carpenter ants look like?” firsthand will most likely expedite solving the problem.

If you suspect that your home is being infested by carpenter ants, it would be best to rely on the expertise of a pest control professional before things get out of hand. Remember, if left untreated for a considerable time, a carpenter ant infestation can cause major structural damage to your home, which can quickly become a very costly expense.

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