Termites do billions of dollars in damage every year, and they can become a homeowner’s worst nightmare when it comes time to sell the house. All over the United States, home sales almost always are made pending a termite inspection, and a finding of termite infestation can make a house impossible to sell.
Termites eat wood, paper, insulation, books, and even swimming pool filters. They can even kill trees and shrubs in the landscape. It is almost impossible for most do-it-yourselfers to get rid of termite infestations once they have become fully established, but you can avoid the financial catastrophe that termites can bring by remembering a simple rule:
Take steps to prevent termite problems before they start.
- If you are building a new home, have the contractor or architect specify a soil pre-treatment to kill termites. This is the only time in the life of your home that all the soil can be protected against termites.
- If your house is currently termite-free, place a repellent barrier completely around your house with Dragnet, Suspend , or Talstar with a back-pack sprayer. Spraying the complete perimeter of your house will only take you a few hours and won’t cost you much more than $200, even if you have to buy the sprayer (which you can use for other projects), but these products will protect your house against termites and many other insects for up to 5 years per application. That is, one treatment will protect your home for 5 years provided you create a perfect barrier around your entire home. Even a tiny untreated area in the perimeter of your home can let termites swarm in.
- If the foundation of your house is raised off the ground (that is, if your house rests on a pier and beam foundation), you need to keep moisture from rising from the ground and condensing on the wooden flooring and cross beams. You can do this by covering at least 70 to 80% of the bare dirt beneath your house with 4 or 6 millimetre polyethylene water barrier. The water barrier lets water flow back into the soil rather than into your house. Make sure the crawl space under your house has some kind of ventilation vent, preferably covered with hardware cloth to keep swarming termites out, every 25 feet along its edges.
- While other kinds of termites enter your home from the ground up, drywood termites fly around your home looking for cracks, holes and crevices in wood. Use caulk to keep them out.
- Borate dust kills termites and burrowing beetles without any risk of harm to people or pets. It’s great for protecting wooden furniture inside the home or on the deck or patio against future infestations of termites. But because it only penetrates about ¼ inch into wood, it’s not useful for getting rid of infestations that have already occurred.
- If you live in an area where both termites and ants are a problem, put out Termidor around your house. Termidor is a poison that termites take back to the nest. Unlike repellent products, if you miss a small part of the perimeter of house during treatment, Termidor will still work, since it works in the nest, not around your house.
Signs of Termites in Your Home
But what if you are already seeing signs that termites have invaded your home? Maybe you found a swarm of dead bugs at a window, or maybe you noticed a little pile of "sawdust" (that isn’t really sawdust, it’s something less pleasant) underneath a hole in a wall, in the ceiling, beside a hole in the floor, or underneath a hole in furniture.
Before you hit the panic button, make sure the problem is really termites.
- Termites are "true insects," with three distinct body parts, a head, a thorax, and an abdomen, and two sets of wings (four in all).
- Termites look like large ants, but you can tell the difference between termites and ants by their wings. Examined through a magnifying glass, ants have a set of larger wings and a set of smaller wings, but all four termite wings are the same size. Only the kings and queens of the termite colony develop wings.
- You can also distinguish termites from ants by their antennae. An ant’s antennae always have elbows. A termite’s antenna is always straight.
- Termites have hook-like feet, which enable them to gain the traction they need to move up and down in their tunnels.
- Termites don’t mature through the normal insect pattern of egg, larva, pupa (in a cocoon), and adult. Instead, they hatch from the egg as a nymph and shed their outer skeletons several times as they grow to adult size. If you see cocoons, you aren’t looking at termites.
- Termites swarm toward light. Other kinds of insects may swarm toward water or a food source.
What to Do If You Have Termites in Your Home
Once you are sure you have termites, the decision on whether to call the exterminator and when will require that you determine what kind of termite you have. In the United States, you are most likely to encounter drywood termites, dampwood termites, subterranean termites, or Formosan termites.
Drywood termites, as their name suggests, live in dry wood. They swarm in September and October on bright, sunny days when the temperature is above 80° F. They enter your house through cracks, knot holes, or joints between pieces of wood, sealing the opening behind them with a plug of brown cement-like material. Because drywood termites live in their food, they have occasionally drill holes in wood to kick out fecal pellets called frass. The frass can accumulate in small piles beneath the exit holes. If you look at it through a magnifying glass, you will notice that the pellets are hard, have rounded ends, and six concave sides.
Dampwood termites depend on moisture in wood as their water source. They may colonize logs or stumps in your yard, or they may feed on lumber in your house that is kept moist by leaky plumbing, clogged gutters, or condensation. It’s hard to miss a dampwood termite king or queen in flight. The reproductive dampwood termites grow up to an inch long, with wings that are longer than their honey-brown bodies. Dampwood termites make their toilet in their food. They may use their six-sided fecal pellets to seal holes in wood to protect themselves against predators, or you may find tiny specks of feces inside ruined wood.
Subterranean termites enter your house from the ground. Any place an attached porch, patio, or planter box is higher than the foundation of your house can become a freeway for subterranean termites. You’ll need to check the entire perimeter of your house. Wood fences, attached decks, and trellises that have direct contact with the ground are also a common entry point for subterranean termites. Because these termites feed on fungi as well as on wood, they are particularly attracted to damp, already-rotting wood. And because they depend on constant water sources, they are especially attracted to leaking rain gutters, condensation from an air conditioner, leaks in the roof, buckles in wooden floor caused by accumulated moisture, and to leaks in plumbing, especially under sinks and water heaters. Subterranean termites build shelter tubes across masonry and concrete out of mud or feces as they spread through your house. Check mud tubes for live activity with a wood knife. Tunnels made by subterranean termites follow the grain of the wood.
Formosan termites are especially bad news. Swarming at night in April, May, and June and attracted to light, a colony of Formosan termites may number in the millions. Aside from the massive numbers of termites in a swarm, the distinctive shape and behavior of the soldier termites can be used to identify this species. Formosan termite soldiers, which protect the workers, have egg-shaped or teardrop-shaped heads. They are aggressive, and defend themselves by spraying a white, toxic substance from the front of their heads. Formosan termites primarily live in the soil, but they create "cartons" of dried feces in walls, floors, cross timbers, and trees in the yard. Formosan termite nests can be as large as a pillow or even a kiddie wading pool.
In the Southeastern United States you may also encounter powderpost termites. As their name suggests, powderpost termites turn the interior of posts, furniture, door frames, window trim, and fascia into powder. The powderpost termite has a greenish abdomen, and if it has wings, they are usually more than twice as long as the rest of its body. Powderpost beetles sometimes build shelter tubes out of fecal pellets to build bridges between pieces of furniture stored in an attic or across the corners of a seldom-opened door or window.
So once you know you have termites, how urgent is it to call an exterminator?
- Drywood termites live in colonies of just a few thousand members. They do real damage, but slowly, over a period of years. Powderpost termites are likewise unlikely to cause major damage fast.
- Dampwood termites are primarily attracted to wood that is already decayed. Replace rotten wood, which is something you need to do anyway, and you will have gone a long way toward controlling your termite problem.
- Subterranean and Formosan termites can do major damage to your home in just a year or so. If you see signs of subterranean or Formosan termites, you need to get in touch with an exterminator. In the short term, it can help to put out a drench of Termidor all the way around your house, so that termites will take the poison back to their nests, or you can follow label instructions to use it as a spot-treatment indoors, but Termidor is better used for prevention than treatment. If you just need to do a spot-treatment inside your house, the less expensive and easier to use Premise foam is a better option.
Chances are that you will need to get in touch with 2 or 3 exterminators to compare prices. Don’t let the company pressure you. Even if you have subterranean or Formosan termites, they aren’t going to destroy your home today, this week, or this month. Take your time getting the best deal.
And be careful about any claims of quick cures for termite problems. Fumigating your entire house, which is something no state will let you do without a license, will get rid of all active termites in just 16 to 24 hours – but they can come right back beginning the very next day.
On the other hand, if the exterminator promises to get rid of your termites by baiting, putting out poisons in "termite motels" that worker termites will take back to the colony, be aware that the treatment only works if the termites cooperate by taking the bait. Even a year later, very few termites may be killed, and it’s not unusual for termite baits to have no effect at all.
By far the best option for homeowners is to stop termite problems before they start. You won’t need special tools or elaborate protective gear and you will only spend a few hundred dollars, rather than a few thousand dollars or more. But take the steps you need to keep your home termite-free today so you won’t have to worry about termites for at least 5 years to come.