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Termites: Friend or Foe?

By: Randy Pope

Mankind needs termites.  Mankind hates termites. Whether these little creatures are our “friend” or “foe” will depend on whether these guys are eating on your home or helping clear out underbrush in your natural wooded areas.  In everything there is always a line between beneficial and destructive.  This holds true with termites.  Unfortunately, for termites, this is a very broad line.  Termites cause an estimated $5 billion dollars in structural damage every year in the United States.  However, termites are one of nature’s greatest custodians.  They are important decomposers.  Termites break down tough plant fibers, recycling dead and decaying trees into new soil. These hungry insects are vital to the health of our forests. As

Termites Working

Image: Elitetermitedfw.net

they tunnel, termites also aerate and improve the soil. It just so happens that we build our homes from termite food—wood.  Generally speaking, we invade their homes well before they invade ours.  So, I guess we would be what one could call a “frienemy” (friend-enemy conjunction).  Like many marriages, sometimes we can’t live with them and other times we can’t live without them.  Again, your perspective is normally driven by whether you have ever had to pay for damages related to their handiwork.

Termites 101

Termites

Casts: (from left to right) soldier, worker, nymph, larva. Image: Termites.com

Before you can determine whether these little cellulose eaters are your friend or foe,

you must be able to understand how to identify termite damage, termite activity, conducive conditions, and what termites look like.  The average person can easily mistake one or all identifiers, so it’s best left to someone who is experienced and well trained to determine if a structure has termite activity.

Here are some basics to help:

  • Termites are social insects
  • Within each species there are “casts” that perform different duties for their colony
  • Termites come in a wide variety of colors and sizes
  • Colonies can be very large depending on conducive conditions
  • Conducive conditions must be right for termites to survive in a structure: Moisture, Food, & Protection (see below)
  • Based on where you live, there are several species of termites to consider
  • Depending on the species, they leave behind different evidence such as frass (another word for termite poo), mud tubes, tunnels with the grain of the wood that look like honeycombs (depending on the species), or tunnels across the grain of the wood making large voids (depending on the species)
  • Depending on the species, they are attracted to distinct types of wood
  • Various points in the Spring and Fall, termites grow wings and “swarm” to find ideal sites to establish new colonies; these are called “Swarmers”

 

Again, this is only some very general information about termites.  If you suspect that your structure may have these unwanted visitors, then finding an expert to make this determination is always your safest option.

 

Conducive Conditions:

The right living conditions…

As started above, one of the biggest issues that homeowners face are the conducive conditions around their home.  The good news is that you are in control of these conditions and can correct them if you choose to.  Termites need three things to survive: moisture, food, and protection.  When these conditions are present, then termite activity can, not only be present, but can thrive.  So, we should try to eliminate such conditions so that we can reduce the possibility of termite activity around or in our homes.  Here’s an abbreviated list of items to be on the watch for, and to try to correct, if you really wish to reduce your risk of termite issues:

  • Wood to soil contact
  • Wood piles or wood debris near home
  • Excessive mulch build up on foundation of home
  • Soil grade slopes towards home
  • Water directed towards the foundation
  • Water damage to wood finishes on home due to poor water runoff/drainage
  • Internal water damage to wood caused by roof, seal, and/or plumbing leaks
  • Cellulose (wood and plant fibers) materials being stored in basement or crawlspace
  • High moisture content in crawlspace due to improper ventilation or water intrusion
  • Cracks in foundation or slab

Proactive or reactive treatments:

Is there really a choice?

Well, there’s only two approaches in dealing with termites.  One cannot just decide to either take a “proactive” or “reactive” approach either.  The approach will be predicated on the findings of a thorough termite inspection of the structure.

 

  • If no termite activity or damage is found, then one would have the choice to be proactive or reactive. Being proactive is where one would elect to have a liquid treatment or an approved baiting program put in place.  Both options would be state recognized preventative treatments.  Although neither preventative treatment is a 100% guarantee that you will never have termites, a reputable pest and termite professional company should provide a warranty on their work.  Most companies will warranty up to a specific dollar amount covering the cost to retreat any affected area and/or even paying to repair the damaged areas.  If after a clean termite inspection is performed, and one choses to wait, then he/she is taking the risks of potentially becoming a reactive client in the future.  Keep in mind that the costs of these treatments increase significantly once one has termite issues.
  • If, during the initial termite inspection, termite activity or damage is found, then one would only have the reactive approach to consider. Like the proactive, liquid treatments and approved baiting programs can be put in place to address and remedy the termite activity, but one can expect the costs to perform this work to be notably more expensive.  Likewise, the treatments are not a 100% guarantee that you will never have an issue again, but the level of the warranty is there to protect retreating future issues.  The major difference is most companies will not cover damage repair costs on homes that they confirm prior damage on.  So, waiting could potentially cost more than one would save.

Summary

Regardless which approach that you take for your home, just remember to have it inspected annually by a reputable professional.  Your home is your largest investment, keeping it safe from termite damages is such a small cost to consider for the protection it will receive.  Catching issues before they occur could save you a lot of money down the road.  The ultimate goal is to provide you the peace of mind to know that termites will not be your home’s foe, all while they can continue to be nature’s friend.

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