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Everything You Need to Know About Termites – Part 1

They are a homeowner’s worst nightmare: termites.

If you are anywhere but Alaska, termites are a possible threat and a real concern. These tiny, voracious, wood-destroying insects will eat cellulose matter — the main structural component of homes.

The Internet is full of resources on termites, but it can be hard to find exactly what you’re looking for, when you’re looking for it.

In this three part series, we’ve compiled a complete and exhaustive resource on termites with the most up-to-date facts and data, from both our resident experts at Insight Pest Solutions as well as top-notch, recognized sources from across the country.

In this post, we’ll introduce you to these tiny terrors, tell you how you can identify termites, and relay all the basics you should know about them. In Part 2, we dig deeper into termite castes, the anatomy of a colony, the different species of termites, and more.

Finally, Part 3, gives you all the information you need about treating for termites. This can also be found on a termite infographic we created.

So, let’s get started with Part 1.

Photo credit: USDA

Termite Damage

Why are they a threat?

Termites eat 24 hours a day nonstop. They are consummate snackers. Because of their  hard, saw-toothed jaws that work like shears, they are able to bite off extremely small fragments of wood one piece at a time. Like a kid and a bag of chips, termites just keep munching. And if they’re feasting on your home, you could be in trouble.

Here’s an example of the type of damage termites can inflict on an unknowing homeowner. They can turn a structural beam into a piece of cardboard!

Photo credit: Matt

Termites cause $5 billion in damage annually, according to some sources.

Let’s compare that with the price tags of natural disasters:

$580 million in annual earthquakes.

$2.3 billion from Hurricane Isaac.

$3 billion from the Joplin, MO tornado

$3.6 billion in annual wildfires.

$4.3 billion in annual flood damage.

More than 5 million homes (1 out of 25 homes) in the United States have some type of termite problem each year. In extreme cases, they can cause structural damage in a matter of months.

It’s safe to say that termites are not just a nuisance, but a huge potential issue that all homeowners should take seriously.

Before we go any further, we do want to point out that termites are not vectors of disease and do not pose an immediate threat to health.

And, in the grand scheme of life, termites are actually considered one of the most beneficial insects known to man because they convert cellulose (wood) into organic matter that is returned to the soil.

If it weren’t for termites, fallen trees would not break down.

But it’s an unfortunate reality that termites can’t tell the difference between a fallen tree in the forest and our homes.

Termite Identification:

Termites have three body regions (a head, thorax, and abdomen). And there are several different species of them.

What signs can I look for to see if I have termites?

  • Shelter tubes or “mud tubes.”

    • Termites build and travel through mud tunnels for protection from predators and dry air. If you see a line of dirt making its way up the block wall in a crawlspace, you’ve likely found termites. Also, beware of bubbled paint or visible, pencil-sized mud tubes running across concrete or connecting soil to wood.

  • Swarmers.

    • These are winged termites that erupt by the hundreds in the spring in search of a mate and an opportunity to start a new colony. When you see two winged insects crawling together, or a cloud of winged insects, take a close look and determine whether they are ants or termites. Ants have swarms too.

  • Visibly damaged wood.

    • The surface of severely damaged wood may appear blistered or peeling, as termites hollow out the wood leaving a paper-thin surface.  Look for wood that has been tunneled into. Soil is typically mixed in with the wood.  Termites prefer soft or previously damaged wood, but will eat most anything

  • Other symptoms of wood damage from termites.

    • Small piles of wood residue or shavings, tiny holes in wood, crumbling drywall and sagging doors are other things to watch out for.

Where should I look for signs of termites?

  • Check the perimeter of your house, the crawlspace, any wet or damaged wood, wood piles, the attic and garage, pipes, windows and doors, and other entry points.

  • Oftentimes, damage is not apparent until it is substantial.  When you suspect wood may be damaged, you can check by poking it firmly with an ice pick or screwdriver.

How can I tell the difference between Ants and Termites?

  • Ants and termites are very similar but ants do not consume wood.

  • Worker ant vs worker termite – basically the same as winged version but without wings

  • Winged ant vs. winged termite – Winged ants have elbowed antennae, thin waists constricted at the thorax and hind wings smaller than their front wings. Winged termites have straight antennae, broad waists and wings that are equal in length.

Termite, ant

Photo Credit: Rudolf H. Scheffrahn, University of Florida

What does damaged wood look like?

  • Look for wood that has been tunneled into with a honeycomb pattern. You will find soil mixed in with the damage of subterranean termites. You will notice that primarily the soft wood was consumed.

How can I tell the difference between termite damage and water damage?

  • Soil will be mixed in with the damaged wood when termites are the cause of the problem.

How do termites find my home?

  • Termites live in and under soil and vegetation near wooded areas. Workers forage randomly for cellulose within a range of up to 100 meters, but the closer they are, the more likely that they’ll find you.

What is a swarm?

At different times of the year, depending on species, a cloud of hundreds or thousands of winged termites fly into the air to find a companion and return to the soil to form a new colony. A burst of winged termites in or near a home is one of the biggest clues that termites are near.

Photo credit: Ganesh Subramaniam

Can termites live above ground?

Yes. Drywood termites can infest furniture or attic spaces.  Even subterranean termites can nest above ground if they have access to adequate moisture.

Don’t forget to read the rest of this guide: Part 2 (Termite castes, colony info and more) and Part 3 (termite treatments, and detailed takeaways for homeowners), all based on this termite infographic.

Posted in: Preventing Pests

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