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:
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.
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.
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.