So, you're thinking about calling an exterminator to address those nagging worries you have about termites eating your house out from under you. Maybe you think you hear the sound of chewing in your walls (that's probably your imagination), or you just discovered a winged ant in your basement and fear the worst. After all, termites are destructive pests. They're found in 49 of the 50 states (Alaska has been spared the scourge), and cause an estimated $50 billion in damage to buildings and dwellings every year.
Termites are scary because they can cause extensive damage before you ever realize you have a pest problem. They eat wood from the inside out, so their presence is hard to detect unless you know what to look for. Everything will look solid and sturdy until your porch starts listing to the left or collapses completely. Well, it's not quite that bad. Termites actually work pretty slowly, especially when you consider that some nests can harbor hundreds of thousands of hungry mouths to feed.
If you have your home evaluated annually or do the honors yourself (with a few tips from us), you can usually spot an infestation before termites can do much damage to your home's foundation. Termites are sneaky, working in secret areas of your home you seldom inspect very closely. They aren't infallible, though. On the next few pages, let's take a look at five key things a termite inspector will look for to determine whether or not you have a termite problem. Grab your work shoes; we're going on a bug hunt.
Evidence of Swarmers
Although there are three major varieties of termites in the U.S., the most prevalent are subterranean termites, so we'll be discussing them in detail. Termites start new colonies from existing nests. Here's how it works: Established, successful termite colonies start producing winged, sexually mature adults called alates after a few years. The alates fly off to create their own nests during the spring when the temperature is mild and the air is humid and relatively still. Nests release all their alateat one time in swarms that disperse quickly. If you detect the presence of multiple winged termites inside your house, there's a good chance there's a termite nest nearby using the wood in your home as a food source. Check your window sills. Alates will try to get outside, so you may find them clustered around closed windows or doors.
Don't panic yet. Some ants start new colonies in a similar manner, so there's a chance you left the window open and a few winged ants flew in by mistake. They look similar to winged termites, but there are three big differences:
- A termite's rear wings (they have two sets) are the same length as their front wings. In flying ants, the rear wings are smaller than the front wings.
- Termites have wide waists, but ants have wasp waist indentations below their second set of wings.
- Termites have straight, beaded antennae, where ants have antennae with elbows and jointed bends.
If you have winged termites inside your house, it's one big indicator that you have a problem. Call an exterminator.
Another obvious indication that will alert an exterminator to a termite problem is the presence of mud tubes. You may find them along your foundation, near your pipes, in your crawlspace, in your attic or around other access points to your home. Also called shelter tubes, mud tubes are like covered highways termites use to traverse open, exposed spaces like concrete footers. They can't go through these obstacles, so they build highways over or around them.
Mud tubes are made of soil, wood cellulose and other particulate matter. Termites dehydrate quickly, so they need the protection of an enclosed environment to maintain the humidity levels they need to survive. The tubes also protect them from predators. Mud tubes are about the thickness of a drinking straw or pencil and look like encrusted, dried dirt. They can be squiggly or straight. If you see a mud tube and don't know if it's from an old termite infestation or not, remove a small section, leaving the two ends of the tube undisturbed. If the breach seals back up in a few days, termites are currently active around your property.
Mud in Construction Joints
Termites are studious little builders, sealing small gaps with dirt in order to make themselves more comfortable. Even if you don't detect tubes around your property, if you see crusted dirt in what used to be small holes or cracks in your sheetrock or concrete, or mud crammed into construction joints, it may be the work of diligent termites.
Wood in Your Landscape
Although not a primary indicator of the presence of termites in your home, checking your property for features that can harbor termites will definitely be on an exterminator's checklist.
Wood fencing adjacent to your house -- The idea here is that termites can find the wood fence, start using it as a food source and follow it like a big welcome sign right into your home.
Wood mulch within 4 to 6 inches of your home's foundation -- Wood mulch is -- well, wood. Termites can eat it. They can also use it as a protective, moist cover as they munch their way ever closer to your house. Termites can't smell wood. When they bump into it, though, they follow where it leads.
Firewood -- That big pile of winter firewood may invite termites to picnic in your backyard. That doesn't necessarily mean you can't keep wood on your property. To discourage termites, store wood off the ground, and keep the pile at least 20 feet from your home.
Deadwood -- Fallen tree limbs are part of nature, and removing them is good property maintenance. Just because tree branches are natural in the environment doesn't mean they get a pass from termites. Round up dead wood and discard it.
Wooden structures -- Termite-resistant wood products are often used in the construction of outdoor structures like decks, arbors, playsets and sheds. If you have wooden improvements on your property that aren't made from termite-resistant materials like pressure-treated wood, they may be vulnerable to termite damage now or in the future.
Because termites eat wood from the inside, you usually won't see surface damage. You may see dried mud tubes and a few other dabs of mud here and there (possibly). A termite inspector may be able to tap a wood beam and detect a low or flat sound that indicates that the wood is somewhat hollower on the inside than it should be. This can be a subtle distinction a novice may miss, though.
In the advanced stages of disintegration, you'll see little bits of mud inside termite damaged wood. You'll also notice it has been excavated leaving long, deep parallel grooves. That's because termites like to eat the soft spring-growth sections of the wood and leave the hard wood portions alone. These striations will help you distinguish termite damage from dry rot or water damage.
What's in your typical can of bug spray? Find out how bug spray works at HowStuffWorks.
- Animal Planet. "Termite." (6/19/12). https://animals.howstuffworks.com/insects/termite-info.htm
- Environmental Protection Agency. "Potential Revision of the Product Performance Test Guidelines, Structural Treatments." 7/7/08. (6/19/12). http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2008/E8-15327.htm
- N.C. State University. "Residential, Structural & Community Pests." 3/07. (6/19/12). http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/ent/notes/Urban/termites/index.htm
- Termite MD. "How To Do A Termite Inspection." (6/19/12). http://termitemd.com/termite-inspection/
- Termites 101. "Termite Basics." 2010. (6/19/12). http://www.termites101.org/termite-basics/
- Termites 101. "Warning Signs." 2010. (6/19/12). http://www.termites101.org/warning-signs/
- Termites.com. "What Does a Termite Inspector Look For?" (6/19/12). http://www.termites.com/treatment/inspections/what-does-a-termite-inspector-look-for/
- University of Florida. "How to tell the difference between ant and termite alates." (6/19/12). http://flrec.ifas.ufl.edu/entomo/ants/Ant%20vs%20Termite.htm
- University of Kentucky. "TERMITE CONTROL: Answers for Homeowners." 1/10/10. (6/19/12). http://www.ca.uky.edu/entomology/entfacts/ef604.asp
- YouTube. "Termite Inspection Charlotte Home." 3/19/08. (6/19/12). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0xbC96HEItU