If you want to scare a homeowner, there's one sure way to do it: Mention the word termite. These destructive little wood-eating pests cause upwards of $50 billion in property damage every year -- and that's not sawdust. If you aren't paying for an exterminator to check for termites on your property periodically, learn the signs and perform your own informal termite hunt every few months. But even if you're as thorough as they come, we highly recommend a professional termite inspection once a year.
Termites can be very hard to spot. They eat wood from the inside out, preferring the soft spring wood growing in layers deep inside wood construction materials, fences, fallen branches, firewood and even wood mulch. You might not be able to see their handiwork until they've caused a lot of damage and even spread to multiple locations on your property. Termites do leave a few clues to their presence, though. Grab your work clothes and a pair of walking shoes. We're going to take a trip around your property to look for subterranean termites, the most common termite species active across the U.S.
Tell-tale Termite Signs
There are a few distinctive warning signs that termites are in or near your home. If you see any of them, call a termite expert immediately. An established termite colony can eat a pound of wood a day -- every day -- so it pays to call in a pro soon after you discover you may have an infestation.
Swarmers -- In spring, established nests send young, winged termites (alates) out into the world to start new colonies. Hundreds of them will leave the nest at once, so their numbers look like swarms of flying ants. Unlike ants, though, winged termites have straight, beaded antennae, and their two sets of wings are roughly the same size. In flying ants, the antennae are jointed, and the back wings are smaller than the front wings. Swarming termites are released in such large numbers that you can often determine whether or not termites are active in your neighborhood by checking the spider webs around your property every spring. If you find a termite in a web, check your home for signs of termite activity. You might also want to consider putting down termite bait traps. These traps are filled with poisoned food that termites take back to their nest. It's one way to be proactive about eliminating the threat of termites before they cause much if any damage. If you discover what looks like flying ants inside your home during the spring, take a closer look. If you decide they could be termites (a likely possibility), call an exterminator. You probably have a problem.
Termite tubes -- Termites are pretty fragile insects. They don't have defenses against predators, and they require a moist environment to survive. To get around safely when they aren't underground or inside a piece of wood, they build tubes, small tunnels made of mud and cellulose. The tubes look like little brown straws. If you have termites, inspecting the foundation around your home may reveal a number of termite tubes. To make sure a tube is still active and not part of an old infestation that's been eliminated, remove a small section of the tube and wait a few days. If termites are present, they'll repair the breach. That way, you'll know you still have a problem. There are other places you should check for termite tubes, too, like around water pipes, in crawl spaces, in your attic and in your basement.
Termite cement -- As termites start making themselves at home, they begin sealing small cracks and holes with mud to reduce air flow and hold in moisture. Check any small cracks, holes or imperfections around your home's foundation for dried dirt that shouldn't be there. The presence of termite "cement" is another good indication that you have termites.
Damaged wood -- Although termite damage isn't apparent in affected wood until an infestation is pretty advanced, you may be able to compare two pieces of similar wood in your home by tapping them. A hollowed-out wood piece that has been damaged by termites will sometimes sound different from a solid piece of wood. It may sound flat or dull when tapped. When excavated, damaged wood in advanced stages of predation appears ridged or striated. This looks somewhat different from the overall disintegration caused by dry rot and some types of water damage.
- N.C. State University. "Residential, Structural & Community Pests." 3/07. (7/11/12). http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/ent/notes/Urban/termites/index.htm
- Termite MD. "How To Do A Termite Inspection." (7/11/12). http://termitemd.com/termite-inspection/
- Termites 101. "Warning Signs." 2010. (7/11/12). http://www.termites101.org/warning-signs/
- Termites.com. "What Does a Termite Inspector Look For?" (7/11/12). http://www.termites.com/treatment/inspections/what-does-a-termite-inspector-look-for/
- Termitepedia. "Types of Termites." (7/11/12). http://termitepedia.com/types-of-termites.html
- University of Florida. "How to tell the difference between ant and termite alates." (7/11/12). http://flrec.ifas.ufl.edu/entomo/ants/Ant%20vs%20Termite.htm
- University of Kentucky. "TERMITE CONTROL: Answers for Homeowners." 1/10/10. (7/11/12). http://www.ca.uky.edu/entomology/entfacts/ef604.asp