General Termite Knowledge
Termites act as Mother Nature’s garbage disposal, breaking down dead plants and woods. Termites are “detritivores”, meaning that they feed on dead plants and trees, including wood. Out in nature, termites help maintain the balance of an ecosystem. Unfortunately, termites are not able to tell the difference between a dead tree and your deck. Problems occur when termite colonies move out of the forest and decide to snack on a home or two.
All houses contain some detritus materials that termites enjoy munching on, which makes every house vulnerable to termite infestation (unless that house happens to be in Alaska). Even though each individual termite is tiny, they live in large colonies that can cause significant home damage. Colonies range in size from 10,000 to over a million insects. It’s no wonder that they can chew through house foundations, decks and even furniture.
Termites cause approximately $5 billion in damage to U.S. homes per year according to the National Pest Management Association, and they can be very hard for the untrained eye to detect. Termites are not only very small, but they also really like to hide in your walls or in the ground. Most homeowners have no idea that their house is infested until a significant amount of damage has already been done. Even in the few instances when a termite gets caught out in the open, they are often mistaken for ants.
Within the United States, there are roughly 50 different termite species, which are grouped into three main categories: drywood termites, subterranean termites and dampwood termites. Termites are found in every state in the United States except for Alaska.
Termite society is anything but democratic. Termites are born into one of three castes that will determine their appearance and their job within the colony. Each little termite larvae will eventually develop into a worker, soldier or alates.
Workers perform much of the labor for the colony, including digging tunnels. They’re also the servants of the colony, feeding and grooming the members of the other castes. Soldiers are in charge of security. They have large heads and usually large mandibles. The mandibles make them fearsome warriors but also get in the way of eating, which is why the worker termites must feed them. The smallest caste is the alates, who are dark in color and will eventually grow wings so that they can travel and eventually start their own colonies.
At the top of the termite period is the queen, who lays all the eggs that will eventually become workers, soldiers and alates. While worker and soldier termites live usually only live up to two years, a queen can live for a decade or more.
When alates mature, they grow wings and engage in mating. This usually happens in the springtime for subterranean termites and from August to November for drywood termites. Once the mating is complete, alates “swarm”. They fly away from the colony and search out a new place to start their own colonies. Once a couple finds a nice new feeding ground, they shed their wings and become the king and queen of the colony. The queen will lay eggs, which will be the start of a new colony. The swarm is the primary mechanism for the spread of termite infestations.
Subterranean termites live underground, building large and elaborate systems of mud tunnels through which they come to the surface and find food sources. They can tolerate cold well and are found throughout the United States, including the chilly northern states. They especially like wet or moist conditions.
Subterranean termites tend to be the most active and “swarm” in the spring, but they can also become active after a rain. The magic formula for subterranean termites is wood plus moisture plus contact with the ground. They tend to be found near air conditioning units, in woodpiles, crawlspaces, or in areas of your wooden deck where water collects. Subterranean termites can also get inside your home. If you notice mud tunnels, that is almost a sure sign of a subterranean termite infestation.
Drywood termites like warm climates, which limits them to the southern part of the United States. They are prevalent throughout California, including San Diego County, Riverside County and Orange County. Drywood termites prefer to live inside the wood they consume. They are likely to take up residence within walls or furniture. Drywood termites tend to swarm between August and November.
Drywood termite infestations may be detected if you notice “frass”, which looks like a loose pile of pellets near where the termites are feeding. By the time you notice evidence of drywood termites, it is likely that the infestation is widespread. In most instances, you will need to call in a professional extermination company to eliminate the infestation.
As you might have guessed from their name, dampwood termites have a particular fondness for damp conditions. Unlike subterranean termites, they don’t have to stay underground or in contact with soil. Dampwood termites are often found near water leaks, and in moist, decaying wood. If you have damp or rotting wooden furniture or flooring in your home, these items could be fair game for dampwood termites. Though dampwood termites are typically larger than other termites species, they are less common and tend to cause less damage than drywood and subterranean termites.
It is important for an extermination company to correctly identify the type of termite infesting a property. Subterranean and drywood termites have different nesting behaviors and moisture requirements, which can affect how best to get rid of them.
Signs That You Have Termites
Termites are the most active during the “swarm” period of their lifecycle. The alates (the reproducers) will grow wings and fly away to mate and create new colonies. The swarm period takes place in the spring for subterranean termites and in the later half of the year for drywood termites. Alates are drawn to sunlight, which will bring them straight to the windows of your home. If you notice bodies under your windows or on your window sills, there’s a good chance that you have an infestation.
You may also find a pile of shiny, translucent wings on the floor. After the termites have mated and discovered a location for their colony, they will shed their wings.
Subterranean termites build expansive tubes in the mud. These tubes provide them with shelter and moisture and are usually about as think as a pencil. If you notice these tubes in or near your home, then that’s strong evidence that you have or had a termite infestation. Break off a piece of the tube. If it’s rebuilt in a day or two, that means the colony is alive and you need to pick up the phone and call a pest control expert.
Frass are fecal pellets produced by drywood termites. The termites produce the frass and then kick them out of their tunnels. If you notice a pile of small pellets, almost like grains of salt in some corner of your home, it’s likely that a colony of drywood termites is nearby.
Weak or hollow wood
Termites will eat out wood structures like flooring or furniture. If you suspect termites in your home, push on the wood structures near where you think the infestation exists. If the wood crumbles , cracks or is hollow inside, then termites have been snacking there. You can also tap on solid wooden structures to see if they sound hollow on the inside.
It doesn’t happen often, but you may catch a termite out in the open. Unfortunately, many homeowners don’t recognize termites when they see them. Termites look a lot like ants. Just remember, ants have cinched bodies, while termites have a more tube-like appearance.
If you notice wood damage around the foundation of your home or in any area where wood is in contact or close proximity to the ground, you may be able to flip up some mulch and catch a colony of termites in action.
Don’t Put Wood Next to the House
You may think about stacking wood next to the house for easy access when you want a fire on a cold day. Think again! Subterranean termites thrive in wood piles. If you stack wood next to your home, under your deck or in your crawl space, you could easily invite termites right into your home.
Keep Wood Off the Ground
The best way to attract subterranean termites is to keep wooden structures in contact with the ground. If possible, get rid of wood siding, make sure deck posts are sunk with concrete, dispense with wood lattice work and replace wooden window ledges for ground floor windows.
Fix All Leaks
Subterranean termites need lots of water to thrive, so they will look for convenient water sources. Fix leaking air conditioning units, clean out blocked gutters and make sure water doesn’t puddle anywhere on your wooden deck or patio.
Take Care With Mulch
Mulch often incorporates wood chips and sucks in lots of moisture, a perfect draw for subterranean termites. Many homeowners love to plant rose bushes or other flowers alongside their home packed with plenty of mulch, of course. Be careful! Mulch could attract subterranean termites right to your home. Try not to let mulch pile too high or sit right against to your house.