Silent, Invisible and Destructive
Listen. You won’t hear them, and you won’t see them. Termites are silent, almost invisible and highly destructive. Once they make their way in, they go to work and don’t stop until they have exhausted the food sources found in your home or business.
The LSU Agricultural Center estimates annual damage from termites in the United States at $2 billion. Termite infestation can go undetected for years, causing thousands of dollars in damage. Without detection and proper treatment, they can even make a structure unsafe for habitation.
Why Are Termites So Hard to Detect?
Termites are almost invisible, leaving few if any signs of their presence. Unlike ants, they do not crawl along your baseboards in search of dropped crumbs of food. They will not come out from their hiding places at night to scurry across your counter tops like roaches. Termites will invade the very heart of your home and remain hidden for years.
In warmer climates, the most common type of infestation involves subterranean termites. These spend their lives underground, avoiding light, open air, and disturbance.
Drywood and Dampwood termite infestations are more likely to occur in cooler or drier climates. These termites also avoid light, open air and outside disturbance, nesting in the wood of your home where, like subterranean termites, they can exist for years without detection.
Whether your home is attacked by subterranean, drywood or dampwood termites, you may never see the signs of the invasion. Termites eat away at the inside of wood leaving the exterior intact. The wood surfaces appear normal as the interior is weakened and destroyed.
On occasion, termites do swarm, and when this happens, they become visible for a brief period of time as they leave the nest in a winged mass. The sight of swarming termites can be frightening and unnerving for a homeowner.
Swarming occurs when winged members of the termite colony emerge from the seclusion of the nest. Occurring most often in the spring as temperatures warm, the swarms are a method of propagation and expanding the termite colony.
Swarming termites indicate the presence of a nearby nest, possibly invading your structure. While the swarm is the visible sign of termites, the absence of visible swarming does not mean that termites are not present. Swarms may occur when no one is present to see them or may not occur at all.
How Do Termites Get Into A Building?
Since they only thrive in an environment that is dark, airless and undisturbed, the question is how do termites get into a building. Like all creatures, they have adapted, developing a unique method of moving from the ground to their source of food.
Drywood and Dampwood termites tend to move into buildings through the process of swarming. Subterranean termites use a different method.
As the subterranean colony tunnels and expands underground, it sends out “foragers” and “workers”. These termites constantly move out from the nest in search of food. In the process, they build shelter tubes that extend from the ground up to a potential food source such as the floor joists of your home.
The shelter tubes are mud tunnels that the termites construct to expand their range while maintaining their dark, damp, airless environment. Some of the tubes may be exploratory, searching for food, while others may be working tubes, used to gather food back to the main colony.
Tubes are abandoned or walled off by the termites when they do not lead to a food source, or when the food source has been exhausted. New tubes are then constructed as the colony moves on, continuing its search for food.
What Do Termites Eat?
In nature, termites feed off fallen trees, logs, limbs, old stumps and other plant matter. As a result, people often say that termites eat wood. The truth is that they eat cellulose, which is a primary component of wood and other vegetable matter. In fact, according to LSU Agricultural Center, cellulose is “the most abundant organic compound on the earth”. Bacteria in the digestive tracts of termites help break down the cellulose so that the termites can extract the nutrients from it.
In your residential or business neighborhood, cellulose can be found in a number of places. The wood used in construction is a primary source. Cellulose is also a major part of all paper products and other building materials. In other words, your home or business structure is a food source for termites.
What Kind of Damage Can Termites Do?
Because termites chew up wood to extract the cellulose from it, an infestation can cause a great deal of harm. The most serious is the weakening of structural timbers, supporting the building. Working their way through the interior of boards, posts and beams, they remain concealed from sight while they do their damage. Over time, a severe termite infestation, left untreated, may actually make a structure unsafe.
Other less severe forms of damage are also common. Termites can find the cellulose they seek in wall paneling, flooring, windowsills, the paper used to cover drywall, plants and any other material that has cellulose in its composition.
What are the Signs of Termite Infestation?
Since termites are very difficult to see, it is important to know the signs of a possible termite infestation. The California Structural Pest Control Board lists several signs that a building may be infested, including:
- The presence of termite tubes, the mud tunnels they construct from the ground up towards potential food sources. The mud tubes are typically about the diameter of a pencil, but sometimes can be thicker. If you see dirt or mud tubes rising from the ground along foundations, in crawl spaces or along wooden beams or joists, there is a good chance that there is a termite colony exploring your home or business as a food source.
- The presence of “frass”, the wood-like pellet droppings of termites is a sign of termite infestation. Different species droppings may differ somewhat in appearance, but any pile of material that looks like sawdust near wood surfaces is probably termite frass and indicates the presence of termites.
- Wood that appears darkened or blistered may signify the presence of termites. As they eat their way through the subsurface of the wood, the exterior may occasionally change in appearance.
- As mentioned above, sighting a termite swarm indicates the presence of termites. Keep in mind that some swarms may actually be winged ants and not termites. They are different, but a non-expert might have difficulty in determining the difference. For those who want to look close, winged termites have wings that are even and equal in size, straight antenna and straight unjointed bodies. Winged ants have bent or jointed antenna, constricted waists and front wings that are larger than the rear wings. If you see a termite swarm emerge from around a building’s foundation, walls, porches or patios, there is a very good chance that the structure is infested with termites.
- Wood surfaces that are soft, or which can be easily punctured with a knife or screwdriver are also indicators of the presence of termites.
What Can I do About Termites?
There are varying methods to eliminate termites. If you suspect an infestation or are concerned about the possibility of termites, the first step is to have a certified professional conduct a termite inspection of your structure.
If the presence of termites is found, there are several treatments available:
- Spot Control is the application of a termiticide/insecticide to the affected area. As it implies, Spot Control will only kill termites in a limited area and is not recommended as the only solution for a structure infestation.
- Fumigation is the process of sealing the structure inside a tent and applying a termiticide/insecticide throughout to kill the termite colony. This method is used primarily for drywood termites. During fumigation, the structure is sealed from occupancy for several hours to several days, depending on the nature of the infestation.
- The Heat Method is also used to eradicate a structure infested with drywood and dampwood termites. A structure is covered with tarps and hot air is pumped inside until the interior temperature is raised to 140º to 150º Fahrenheit. During the heat method treatment, plants, animals and any items that could be damaged by the heat must be removed.
- Subterranean termites are controlled using a “trench and treat” method that creates a barrier around the structure that prevents the termites from entering. In this method, a trench is dug around the building and termiticide/insecticide is applied around the foundation. Termites are no longer able to pass the termiticide barrier. Used in combination with baits and spot treatments for existing termites, the “trench and treat” method is very effective.
Use a Professional
The North Carolina State Cooperative Extension recommends suing a professional to inspect and treat your home or business for termites. The reasons are simple.
- Proper identification and treatment require expertise.
- Do it yourself treatment methods are generally spot treatments, not sufficient for eliminating a structural infestation or to prevent one in the future.
- Trench and Treat, Fumigation and the Heat Method are complex operations that must be performed according to legal requirements and within specifications that will actually eliminate the infestation.
The best way to put your mind at ease is to have a certified professional give your home or business a termite inspection. The professional will discuss a treatment plan with you and allow you to make a well-informed decision on the best way to protect your home or business from termites.