What are termites?

In spite of our aversion to these small, wood-munching creatures, termites are really somewhat fascinating. Of the estimated 4,000 species, only about 10 percent of them actually cause serious structural damage to buildings, crops or forests. They live in somewhat decentralized, self-organized systems. They are classified by a caste system with three distinct categories: the reproductive class, workers and soldiers.

At maturity, the primary queen can produce as many as two thousand eggs a day. The soldiers are the primary defensive unit of the society, often sacrificing themselves while defending against natural enemies and predators like ants. The worker caste termites are the ones responsible for most of the damage. Their primary responsibilities are foraging and storing food, as well as brood and nest maintenance. They digest cellulose, a component of wood; they are the termites found in infested wood and lumber.

Termites look similar to ants but they do have some distinct features. Like ants, termites have two sets of wings, but the termite’s wings are all the same size while the ant’s wings differ in size. A termite’s waist is broader, and less segmented than that of an ant. A termite can also be identified by its straight antennae, while ants have curved antennae.

termite fumigation

Knowing how to detect early warning signs of termites could save your house from needing to be fumigated. (Photo courtesy of Angie's List member Karla C.)

Termite damage

Two types of termites commonly found in homes include subterranean colonies and drywood termites. Other common varieties are dampwood and Formosan termites. Subterranean termites form their nests underground and then build tunnels, making their way to above ground food sources. Drywood termites inhabit their food source: the wood in your walls, floors and ceilings. Because cellulose is a part of many household materials, damage is not limited to house structural components. Furniture, shelving, carpeting, books and insulation are all on their dinner plate.

Because subterranean termites burrow in under the home, structural damage may not be noticed until extensive destruction has been done. This is one reason for regular, frequent inspections. Trees, outbuildings and crop gardens are also susceptible to damage.

Signs of termites

There are warning signs you should look for to keep damage to a minimum. Check outside for swarming, flying insects exiting from underground nests. These could very well be drywood termites. Buckling wood, swollen ceilings and floors are signs of termite damage. Termite damage can often appear as slight water damage. This should also be investigated immediately. A smell that is similar to mold or mildew will also exude from termite-damaged areas.

Inland areas are home to subterranean termites. Mud tunnels, formed by termite feces and mud, are sure signs of these pests. These tunnels can be seen up the sides of the foundation, both on the exterior and in the crawlspace, and sometimes on interior walls.

Swarming, drywood termites are found mainly in coastal areas. Drywood termites live inside their food source and damage may appear as a maze-like tunnel. Cracks in the veneer of furniture may also be an indicator. Old, antique furniture is very susceptible to termite infestation. In all of these situations, it is recommended that you call a professional exterminator to assess the damage, extent of the infestation and possible solutions.

How to prevent termites

Do not allow lumber, plywood and other wood products to lean against your home for long periods of time. The termites will see this as an invitation to lunch. Damp wood is especially attractive to these pests. Don’t build structures with a wood base sitting directly on the ground. Treated lumber is a mild deterrent, but termites will still feast on it if they are hungry enough.

There is a lot you can do to help prevent termites when building a new home. Some lumber products, such as resinous woods, are naturally termite resistant. Other lumber products can be injected with chemical deterrents. Termite control chemicals can also be sprayed onto framing members before wall coverings are installed. Additionally, termite barriers can be created around the home during construction. This often consists of using chemically treated synthetic blocks, treated insulation or treated soil. These barriers are more effective for subterranean termites than flying species.

You should understand that no pretreatment method is guaranteed to prevent the eventual invasion of natural pests. Nevertheless, studies have shown that these pretreatment methods, especially chemically treated wood, are very effective.

If you buy a pre-owned home, ask to see the pest control records, and you should also have the home inspected for yourself. While some extermination companies will only do inspections for existing owners, you can hire a professional, licensed termite inspector to perform this duty. While some general home inspectors might find damage, they may not be qualified to give an accurate assessment. Make sure the inspector you hire is specifically licensed for termite inspection.

A routine, regular inspection and treatment program is one of the best things you can do for termite prevention. This should be done by a qualified professional. The prevention, diagnosis and treatment of termite problems require extensive training and experience. An extermination company is far more qualified to prevent infestation, or treat it if it occurs. They will also be knowledgeable in proper termite damage repairs.

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