It is very important to know what type of termite you are dealing with before you learn how to get rid of termites with DIY termite control or hiring an exterminator for the job.
What are Termites?
Termites are very small, somewhat delicate insects that are probably best known for feeding on wood and causing significant structural damage to homes. They are detritivores, feeding on dead trees and plants, the dead portions of living trees, and wood particles in the soil. They can be very destructive to timber, trees, and wood structures including the wooden frames of houses.
Entomology departments and pest control companies receive more inquiries about termites than any other household pest . In the United States, there are an estimated 45 species of termites. These types are divided into three categories. These categories provide more understanding and are the best way to describe termites and how to manage them. For the purposes of this guide, the most prevalent species of termites will be discussed here.
Types of Termites
The three categories under which termites are classified are subterranean, damp wood, and dry wood. Each species within those categories exhibit specific behaviors and biology that determine the part of the U.S. where they are found.
Certain species of subterranean termites, like Formosans, are extremely destructive. They live in colonies which are cooperative societies consisting of sometimes millions of termites of the various caste systems. The majority of the colony inhabitants are workers, but reproductive and soldiers are also included. All of the termites in the colony work together to care for the young. They share shelter and food . Several of the common Subterranean species of termites include:
- Arid Land Subterranean Termites
- Dark Southeastern Subterranean Termites
- Eastern Subterranean Termites
- Western Subterranean Termites
- Desert Subterranean Termites
- Formosan Termites
Dampwood termites are the goliaths, much larger than subterranean and are typically the least destructive of the three termite categories. They usually form their colonies in decaying wood that is on the ground but very rarely nest in soil. They have large mandibles and are around 20 mm long. There are no workers in the colonies; the immature termites take on those tasks. Typically, they are not as destructive to homes as subterranean termites . Several of the Dampwood species of termites include:
- Desert Dampwood Termites
- Pacific Dampwood Termites
- Florida Dampwood Termites
- Nevada Dampwood Termites
Drywood termites build their colonies in dry, sound wood. A colony is comprised of offspring that are born from an original pair of one male and one female. They are generally larger in size than subterranean species but still smaller than dampwood termites. Immatures can be as large as 3/8-inch-long and soldiers are around 5/16-inch long. The caste system of drywood termites does not include a distinctive worker group. There are soldiers and reproductives while the immature termites act as the workers, caring for and feeding the queen, enlarging the nest, caring for the younger immature termites, gathering food, and other tasks within the colony .
- Tropical Smooth-Headed Drywood Termites
- Southeastern Drywood Termites
- Tropical Rough-Headed Drywood Termites
- Western Drywood Termites
Termites vs Ants: Do Termites Fly?
During the spring and summer months, some homeowners may notice swarms of tiny, flying insects in or around their home. This often results in concern or all-out panic as they believe their home is infested with termites. This is understandable given the close similarities of ants and termites.
Both ants and termites live in sizeable colonies. When the weather warms, the winged reproductives take flight to start new colonies in other areas. Upon initial inspection, flying ants and flying termites look very similar. Distinguishing between the two insects is fairly easy once you know what winged termites look like compared to winged ants and can note the very noticeable differences between the two.
Termites with wings have the following distinctive characteristics:
- Antennae are straight, not elbowed
- The waist is thick so there is no distinction between the body segments
- Both pairs of wings are equal length
Ants with wings have these distinctive characteristics:
- Antennae are elbowed as opposed to straight
- The waist is pinched with a definite distinction between the body segments
- The front pair of wings is longer than the rear pair of wings
These are the most notable differences that can be observed with the naked eye . You can test your ability to tell flying ants and flying termites apart with this quiz by the University of California Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program.
Lifecycle of Termites
A termite’s lifecycle begins with a swarm. Winged reproductives, both male, and female, leave their established colonies and engage in procreation. Once the female is fertilized, the winged termites find a suitable place to land, shed their wings, and begin to form their new colony. The fertilized female becomes the queen of the colony and her mate is the king. They become the heart of the colony and thus the termite life cycle. They are responsible for the continuation of the species through reproduction.
The fertilized queen lays her eggs in the new colony. The lifecycle timeframe differs somewhat between various termite species. Generally speaking, though, the eggs hatch and larvae emerge. These larvae are tiny and pale white. They go through several molts to eventually emerge to assume their intended role within the colony caste system. In subterranean colonies, those castes are soldiers, workers, and reproductives. In dry wood and damp wood colonies, there is no worker caste. Instead, baby termites, or immatures, do the tasks normally assumed by the workers.
Soldiers and workers in a termite colony can live one to two years. When in an optimal environment under the right conditions, queen termites can live for more than a decade .
Do Termites carry Diseases?
Many pest control companies and entomology departments are asked fairly regularly, do termites bite? Do termites carry disease? Termites do not bite. They are quite small and even those that may have the mandibles to bite are typically buried so far in the colony they are rarely seen. Termites are not an aggressive insect although they will defend their colony against insect predators.
Termites are also not known to be vectors of any diseases, but they can contribute to poor health in an indirect way. Their activity in a home can cause a great deal of destruction to a degree that the home is no longer safe for human habitation. They can damage the home in such a way that other pests such as roaches and rats – known vectors of disease – have easy access to the living area .
What Benefits do Termites Provide?
In nature, termites provide certain benefits acting as decomposers. They create humus as they break down the dead wood and reintroduce it to the soil. This create fertile ground for new and diverse plant life to grow. However, their benefits from an ecological standpoint extend also to their regulation and influence of soil fungal and bacterial communities. In short, they play a crucial part in keeping the ecosystem in balance. It is when they find their way into human structures that they become a detriment and a pest .
What Threat do Termites Pose?
The Termite is the most threatening pest to a structure. They can cause substantial damage to buildings, costing the individual homeowner anywhere from several hundred dollars to several thousand dollars for repairs. In some cases, the home has to be condemned and destroyed. On a global scale, the latest industry estimates indicate that the annual cost of termite treatment and damage exceeds $5 billion.
Very aggressive species, like the Formosan and other subterranean termites, can enter a home and not only destroy the structural lumber, even collapsing a building entirely, but also wood panels, wallpaper, flooring, paper products, plastics, sheetrock, and fabric that is comprised of plant fibers. The most serious and costly damage is to the degradation of structural strength, but termites can also incur very high losses in other areas including furniture, carpeting, valuable or important papers, books, and artwork. They can cause financial ruin for a homeowner .
Homeowners insurance does not cover termite damage. This is because termite damage occurs over a period of time; it is not sudden and it can be avoided. Homeowners policies cover sudden, unavoidable and unexpected damage such as fire, flood, or tornado. That is why most lenders require a termite clearance letter when funding a home purchase. Experts recommend that homeowners purchase termite monitoring and treatment for their homes in order to protect their investment.
What Causes Termites?
Knowing what causes termites will help a great deal in identifying and preventing infestations. Homeowners can take steps to prevent termite infestations of many species. These are some common causes of termites:
- Structural wood that is in contact with the ground. This gives termites the easy access they need to shelter, moisture, and food. It also gives them easy, direct access into a building, allowing them to infest it. Any wood items such as window and door frames, latticework, and wood siding should be well above ground level by at least six inches. More aggressive species of termites like the Formosan can create tunnels and travel the entire height of a wall, but wood items lower than six inches increases the risk of termites. Stairs or posts that are embedded in concrete are also risk areas because they typically extend all the way through the concrete to the soil and termites can access it from below.
- Moisture on or near the foundation.
- Cracks or openings in the foundation. Termites can enter a home through cracks that are smaller than the edge of a dime.
- High humidity in the crawlspace.
- Lumber, firewood, cellulose materials (newspapers, cardboard boxes, books, etc.) or wood debris stored or piled inside the crawl space or against the foundation.
- An excess of mulch.
- Failure to protect the home or structure with a termite monitoring and baiting system.
- A neighbor has termites. Subterranean termites such as Formosans can have colonies as large as a football field. Any home or structure that falls within that range from point zero (the infested home) is at risk.
- Geography. Homes located along the Gulf Coast and the Southeast as well as southwestern California are more at risk of a termite infestation or having problems with termites. These states tend to be wetter, an environment that some of the more destructive species of termites prefer. However, subterranean termites are found in every state in the U.S. except Alaska. The risk of subterranean termite infestation does tend to decrease moving northward .
Signs of Termites
Knowing the telltale signs of termite infestation of the presence of termites could help you catch the problem before significant damage is done. Signs of termites include:
- Wood damage. This is often thought to be the most obvious sign of termite activity, but it is often in the hidden area, located behind surfaces like floors, walls, underneath the fascia, and in door frames or window sills.
- Mud tubes. Mud tubes that are about the diameter of a pencil are usually a good indication of termites. These tubes will connect the ground to wood and may cross a foundation or even travel up a wall. They may be found on the home, on an outbuilding, or even a tree, but if found anywhere on the property it can indicate a termite problem and the homeowner should take action immediately.
- Discarded wings or insect swarms. Tiny, silvery wings found near closed doors, windows, and other access points within the home such as where pipes protrude from the wall are often a good sign there is termite activity. Reproductives, or swarmers, leave the colony in search of a new place to start their own colony. These termite swarms are sometimes the first indication that homeowners have that they have termites. They can be distinguished from ant wings by looking at the uniformity of size. Ants have a longer pair of wings and a shorter pair while both pairs of termite wings are the same size.
- Wood sounds hollow. Termites do not usually feed on wood surfaces, but instead opt for the humid, dark environments of the inner portion of the wood. Even in the presence of severe termite damage, the surface of a piece of wood may appear deceptively smooth but could be destroyed inside. The way to determine this is if it sounds hollow when tapped.
- Paint on wood surfaces that are distorted or cracked. As termites eat the wood beneath the paint it becomes unstable and will distort or begin cracking.
- Other homes in the neighborhood have termites. A single subterranean termite colony can span the length of a football field and house millions of termites. Several lots can fit into that area so if a neighbor has termites, nearby homeowners should get a termite inspection or termite monitoring.
Homeowners who notice any of these signs, no matter how insignificant they may seem, should take action immediately .
How to get Rid of Termites
There are several ways to get rid of termites, including do it yourself termite control.
If there are termites in the house, insecticides and foams are often effective. The key to this method working is that the colony has to be identified. It is vital that the homeowner find all area where the termites are located. These products do work well, but the homeowner will have to vacate the home for some time if an insecticide is used. Foams can penetrate cracks in the wood, reaching the termites and essentially any other insects that have invaded the home. These methods are a good way to get rid of termites quickly. Termidor is a product that has been found to be extremely effective in killing termites.
Termite bait or monitoring systems are places outside the home, on the property, at regular intervals. These stations typically contain a slow-acting poison that the termites carry back to the colony. The monitoring system will alert homeowners of the presence of termites so that they can take appropriate action .
Home Remedies for Termites
There are a number of home remedies for termites that claim to kill them in the home, but none have been validated by authoritative sources. Orange oil is one of the more popular termite control methods, as is salt water. Both methods involved injecting the substance directly into the area where the termite infestation is located. Coating a wood state in borax and submerging it in the ground is another home remedy that is often suggested.
The main problem with many of the home remedies, including over the counter pesticides, is that while it may kill the termites initially, they will eventually just go around it. This is what makes home remedies essentially ineffective.
Pest Control for Termites
According to the National Pest Management Association (NPMA), termites are a pest problem that most homeowners are not able to solve on his or her own – nor should they try. The organization recommends hiring a pest control professional who is experienced in termite control.
This is primarily because termite infestations can vary from one situation to the next. A qualified, experienced technician will inspect the home and property to locate entry points into the home and areas of concern, including the species of termite in order to determine the best course of action as well as the accurate cost of termite treatment. They can locate areas of the infestation that the homeowner may miss. They not only help to get rid of termites, they can help prevent termites from accessing the property.
Professional termite control also comes with a guarantee This means that if the home is not rid of termites the company will continue working with the homeowner until the infestation is eliminated. It is the peace of mind that comes with professional termite control as well as the educated, thorough approach that makes professional services the optimal choice for getting rid of termites .
Best Termite Treatments
There are many ways to deal with termite infestations and there isn’t a one size fits all solution. It will always depend on the species and also the condition of the infected area. Take a look at our guide on how to choose the best termite treatment.
Prevent Termite Infestation
The key to preventing a termite infestation is to know what causes termites. There are things a homeowner can do to prevent an infestation, but if the building is in a high risk area or has other risk factors then they should seek professional help. Knowing how to prevent termites is crucial in knowing how to treat termites. Steps a homeowner can take to prevent a termite infestation include :
- Every month do a visual inspection of your home and property, looking specifically for signs of termite activity.
- Do not allow structural wood to have contact with the ground. Keep any wood items such as window and door frames, latticework, and wood siding well above ground level by at least six inches.
- Reduce the amount of moisture on or near the foundation. Build up areas around the foundation so that they don’t hold water (this will also reduce mosquito populations).
- Seal cracks or openings in the foundation.
- Reduce the humidity in crawlspaces.
- Clean gutters of all plant and wood debris.
- Do not stack or store firewood, lumber, or other cellulose materials next to the house or in the crawlspace.
- Decrease the amount of mulch around the home and keep it as far away from the foundation and home structure as possible.
- If the home is in an area where termites are more prevalent or if a neighbor has termites, homeowners should be vigilant, inspecting their property regularly for signs of activity or, better, hiring a pest control professional.
When Termites Continue to Infest a Structure after Treatment
Sometimes a single termite treatment is not enough and the termites either re-emerge or return. This does not mean that the pest control has failed or that they did not use all measures possible to treat the termite infestation. Termite management involves living insects that don’t always respond or act the way humans would like them to. The intent of professional termite control is to establish an impenetrable, continuous chemical barrier, but in reality that simply isn’t possible. This is why termite treatment involves several steps including baits and termiticide as well. This is why a termite contract with a guarantee is vital in protecting the home from termite destruction .
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