The last thing homeowners want to deal with is an infestation inside their homes. Although termites tend not to be as obvious as other types of insects, they can be a significant problem for people. Specifically, termite nests eat away at the wood in a structure and can ultimately destroy it over time. They prefer to live in large colonies near wood as a food source and water, and they are similar to cockroaches. Outside of chemical extermination, termites can be very difficult to locate and kill, partly because different types of termites live in various parts of the property.
Termites try their best to avoid human interaction, which makes them unique to many other insects that build nests inside the home. However, homeowners should keep in mind that termite infestations can still be noticeable, particularly the larger they get. People should know which types of termites are likely to live in the region and where they build nests. Additionally, people must pay attention to the common signs, so if they do encounter an infestation, they will know the best ways to mitigate it, minimize the amount of structural damage, and prevent the colony from rebuilding.
Table of Contents
- Termite Facts
- How to Identify Termites
- Signs of a Termite Infestation
- What Kind of Damage Can Termites Cause?
- Termite Prevention
- Termite Treatment
- DIY or Call a Pro?
Termites are a very common type of insect. Like ants, they can live in a variety of environments. Termites can thrive in virtually every part of the United States. Because their fundamental food source relates to wood, they can and will build colonies inside buildings. This makes them a common nuisance to homeowners, and one that they may need to control from time to time.
Termites can live a relatively long time, about one or two years. This means they can continue to grow the colony and expand constantly until they die. The queens, which maintain the colony, might live for more than 10 years if the infestation is not found and exterminated. Most species rely on workers to gather food and bring it back to the reproductive termites. Without it, the colony will eventually die out. Although most attempts to create a new colony will fail, experts estimate that there may be as many as 20 termite colonies for every acre of land.
Because termites do not bite humans like mosquitoes, or sting them like bees or wasps, people might wonder why they need to worry about termites at all. In fact, termite infestations can grow very large. The largest termite colonies, which typically grow underground, can have as many as 3 million insects within a relatively small area. Although the size of the colony makes a difference in the threat that they can pose to homeowners, even a small colony can cause significant damage. Their consumption of wood in a variety of forms leads to structural weakness in various parts of the home exterior and interior. Someone who allows a termite infestation to thrive for years may inadvertently destroy a part of the home.
How to Identify Termites
Figuring out how to cope with a termite infestation depends on the type of termite. Although there are thousands of different species, only a few dozen thrive in the United States. Of them, only a handful are likely to build a nest inside parts of manmade structures. These are:
- Dampwood termites
- Drywood termites
- Subterranean termites
As indicated by their names, these insects build nests in different places, using unique methods. Homeowners should know what they look like and how they survive, in order to figure out where they are most likely to reside in a home.
Dampwood termites are some of the largest termites that homeowners may have to deal with. They cannot thrive in every environment, because they need access to wood with a high moisture content. This means that they prefer to live in regions with a high level of humidity, although they may be able to thrive in areas with moderate humidity and a steady access to water. Specifically, this means that they are most likely to be found in the Pacific Northwest and certain parts of Florida.
The average size of a dampwood termite is slightly larger than a half an inch. This depends on the termite’s role in the colony. Like other types of termites, dampwood termites have a reproductive class. This group creates new termites to serve the colony. They are the largest and can be as much as one inch long. The soldiers that protect the colony are a medium brown and average size, while nymphs are the smallest and are pale-colored. The nymphs provide food for the others.
Given the way that they need to live, dampwood termites are less likely to build a nest inside part of a home structure. As a general rule, they prefer to live in places like:
- Rotten logs
- Fence posts
- Dead trees
They may build a colony in wood that is buried underground. Dampwood termites do not dig through soil to build nests, but they may infest any type of wood that is consistently wet. This is why experts recommend that homeowners install treated wood or composite for things like fences and decks. People may also have problems if they allow buildings on their property to get or remain very damp. For example, dampwood termites might infest wood framing that has been recently damaged by a flood.
Drywood termites live significantly differently from other types of termites. As a result, they may pose a unique threat to homeowners. Specifically, drywood termites prefer to live in wood that is completely dry; they do not need to wait to occupy wood until it is wet or showing signs of decay. Where a dampwood termite would prefer to occupy wood that is rotting or buried underground, a drywood termite is not similarly limited. This allows them to infest most areas of the home that contain wood. They are one of the most common termite species in the southeastern United States.
Unlike other types of termites, drywood termites do not have workers that provide food for the colony. Instead, the colony relies on immature insects to do this work. This allows the colony to remain smaller, about 2,500 at a time compared to more than 1 million for subterranean termites. Drywood termites can be as large as one inch long, but usually do not have the same variety in color between castes. Some have wings. Most of these insects range from cream-colored to light brown.
Since drywood termites can infest areas like wood framing and walls and attics, homeowners may spot an infestation later than they would subterranean termites. Drywood termites typically live in much smaller colonies, which means that they do not need as much space to spread out. However, if homeowners do not notice an infestation, these termites can still cause a significant amount of damage to the home structure. They may even infest heavy furniture if it is left untreated. The best way to prevent them is to keep interior wood framing protected from the outside, and to separate piles of firewood from the rest of the house.
Subterranean termites may be the most damaging of termites in large part because of where they build their nests. As given by their name, subterranean termites create pathways underground. Although they build nests near or inside wood, they don’t usually need to crawl or fly on the ground. This means that homeowners are less likely to notice signs of an infestation until it is particularly bad. Unlike other types of termites, they can thrive in most parts of the country.
There are three different types of subterranean termites within a single colony. The first are workers. These insects are the smallest of this particular variety of termite, only about a quarter of an inch long. They are very pale in color and may be difficult to see unless there are many of them. These insects collect food for the colony in the form of consuming wood.
The second type of subterranean termites are soldiers. These termites are also relatively small, but their coloring is significantly different. They may be a light brown with a head that is darker in color. The soldiers serve to protect the colony. They have large mandibles that allow them to fight against other insects.
There are a few types of subterranean termites that participate in reproduction. Their names depend on whether or not they stay in the colony or leave it. For example, alates have wings and will eventually leave the colony. Their goal is to locate a place to build a new colony. They are not usually successful, but their presence may alert homeowners to the existence of an infestation. Inside the colony are queens and kings, which provide new termites for the colony. The queen is by far the largest subterranean termite.
Subterranean termites cause the most damage because of how they travel and where they nest. Because they live underground, they will build mud tubes out of wood and soil to get to the wood, which means they are more likely to build a nest in the carpentry framing or the foundation of a building. They are hard to find, which means that homeowners may have an infestation for years before they realize it. This particular termite is responsible for significant structural damage to homes each year.
Signs of a Termite Infestation
Finding a termite infestation calls for homeowners to know what they are looking for. Most termites hide from human view, which can make an infestation more difficult to find. If people are not looking in the right places, they may not realize that they have an infestation until it is quite severe. Specifically, because termites do not consume human food, people are less likely to notice them in places that they may find ants or bees.
There are several signs of an infestation, although they may depend on the particular type of termite. People should plan to use all of their senses and pay attention to minor problems they have with the structure. As part of regular maintenance at least a few times a year, homeowners should look for these symptoms. Any positive indicators may show that they need to request an inspection or consider hiring an exterminator.
Head Banging Sound
Unlike many types of insects, termites tend to make a lot of noise as they move. For example, soldier termites will bang their heads against the wooden walls of their tunnels. They do this as a way to alert the rest of the colony to danger. Otherwise, worker termites make noise as they chew through the wood. People may need to listen carefully or listen for a significant period of time before they hear these noises. However, this is a clear sign of a relatively significant infestation that people should address as quickly as possible.
Presence of Flying Termites
Another obvious symptom of an infestation is a swarm of flying termites. Because termites tend to have a fairly unique coloring, homeowners can usually distinguish them from bees, hornets, or flies. The way in which termites will swarm depends on the species. For example, subterranean termites are more likely to swarm in the spring. Most species will swarm at night, although drywood termites usually do so after the weather gets warmer. Certain types of termites shed their wings when they find a permanent home. Homeowners may also notice the wings discarded near an infestation.
White Ants or Termites?
Although termites tend to look significantly different from ants or bees, people may still confuse them for a variety of ant. Flying ants and termites with wings are often about the same size, and they may have similar swarming behaviors. However, there is no ant species that is as pale in color as a termite. If homeowners are unsure what type of insect infestation they are dealing with, they should look for dead insects of the same variety. Termites have a much rounder midsection, which clearly distinguishes them from wasps or ants. Termites are also usually much lighter in color, except certain varieties that may be a dark brown.
Timber Sounds Different
Once termites have built a significant infestation in part of the home structure, homeowners may notice a change in the way the wood sounds. A hollow log will have an echo when someone knocks on it. Similarly, if part of a wood frame has been hollowed out by termites, it may also sound hollow. It might take years for this symptom to show up, and people might not notice it until they seek it out. As this is not a normal part of the home structure, any sign that something solid is actually hollow is an impetus to seek more information.
Doors and Windows Are Hard to Open
As the wood tunnels get more complex and deeper, they can begin to warp the wood. Homeowners will usually notice this at first because the paint or stain on the wood will bubble or crack. Overtime, people may observe the doors and windows are harder to open. Although this can be easily explained by changes in temperature or humidity throughout the year, it should be considered when there are other signs present. It is not always obvious at first where the infestation started. This means that tunnels that extend into a window frame may be causing much more damage in another part of the structure.
Most termite infestations involve the building of a complex series of tunnels inside the wood. This allows the workers or other types of termites to continue to find sources of food for the colony without exposing themselves to predators. These tunnels are often called galleries due to their size and complexity. Subterranean termites may also build mud tubes underground, but they will also dig through the wood.
Most homeowners would not notice this extent of an infestation until a piece of wood breaks or splits. For example, if someone sees that there is a rotted piece of wood in the attic, cutting it away may reveal part of the tunnel system used by the colony. It is easier to spot on exposed beams, like a fencepost or deck frame. Otherwise, inspectors may use sound or imaging equipment to get a sense of the extent of the infestation to allow them to see past the walls to observe movement inside the wood. In most cases, people may not think to look for this until they already have many obvious signs of an infestation.
The last sign that homeowners should watch for is termite droppings. They may have a very particular shape and size depending on the type of termite. As a general rule, termite droppings look very much like sawdust. This is a natural conclusion, given what they primarily digest is wood and water. Homeowners may need to get a closer look if they are unsure whether or not it is dust or droppings. Because wood does not naturally decay in a way that generates sawdust, anyone who sees this surrounding something made out of wood can safely assume that they have a termite infestation somewhere nearby.
What Kind of Damage Can Termites Cause?
The fact that termites can cause damage is partly a factor of how well they can remain obscured. Like most pest infestations, termites tend to hide from humans. Because they are not dependent on the same kinds of food sources as humans, homeowners are less likely to discover them by accident. For example, someone might notice ants crawling across the kitchen floor to access an open source of food. By comparison, termites can burrow into wood framing until it is almost completely hollow. They can destroy parts of an attic or even cause parts of the home to collapse.
Specifically, termites cause about $5 billion in structural damage in the United States every year. Exterminating the infestation and repairing the damage is often not covered by homeowners insurance. As such, homeowners must pay attention to common signs of a nest, like swarms of insects or termite droppings around the perimeter of a room. Experts argue that by the time a homeowner finds an infestation, they probably have thousands of dollars in damage to fix. This underscores the importance of periodic visual inspection for signs of a colony as well as prompt attention when signs become apparent.
As with most insect or rodent infestations, preventing pests from building a nest is the best way to avoid having to deal with the problem in the first place. Homeowners who already have an active infestation may need to take a two-pronged approach to solving the issue. The first part involves removing the nest and ensuring that it has been completely eliminated. This may be easier to do for minor infestations or certain species. The second part concerns removing the things that attract that particular type of termite as well as using additional deterrents to keep new termites from building a colony.
Because dampwood termites need water primarily for survival, removing sources of water is the best way to prevent them from building a nest. In areas that are particularly humid, homeowners may want to use ventilation systems that control the humidity level inside the home. People can tell they have a problem if they also deal with issues like mold or mildew. If the home’s structure is drier than the air outside, this species of termite will be less likely to build a nest.
Otherwise, people should consider what they can do to keep moisture from flowing near the home. This involves ensuring that gutters and downspouts point away from the house, and that water does not accumulate anywhere inside or near the foundation. Prompt removal of wet or water-damaged wood is another key step. It only takes a minor flood to provide plenty of water for dampwood termites to set up housekeeping.
Drywood termites may be harder to find and even more difficult to remove than dampwood termites. Because these termites thrive in a dry setting, homeowners should be wary of infestations that may accumulate inside the walls or in the attic. The best prevention method is to close off access to wood framing. This includes sealing air leaks around windows and doors, closing up open spaces around the roof, and making sure that there is no exposed wood framing around the house.
A prevention plan for drywood termites also should include periodic inspections. Given the places where they like to build nests and the comparatively smaller size of the colony, drywood termites are often simply harder to notice. Homeowners should plan to evaluate any wood furniture for a possible infestation before they bring it inside and do the same for firewood. An occasional inspection from a professional can help spot an infestation in harder-to-reach places like the attic.
Because subterranean termite colonies can be significantly bigger than other types of termite infestations, homeowners may not be able to completely prevent them without help from a professional. These termites usually build nests a few feet underground so that they can get access to untreated wood as a source of food. They may build an extensive system of underground tunnels to get to the wood, however, and the colony may spread significantly farther than people expect.
The best way to make a home inhospitable for building a colony nearby is to remove food. Untreated wood in the form of trees or deck posts buried underground provides a regular source of food and moisture for termites. If people use treated wood or material that inhibits termites instead, they remove that food source and discourage the termites from building the colony.
Professional Termite Inspection
A professional termite inspection is often the first step that homeowners take in controlling an infestation. They may also choose to hire an inspector to look for signs of termites as part of a plan to prevent future colonies after an existing infestation has been removed. Although an inspection is designed to give a relatively in-depth look at the home, it may not be completely thorough and able to guarantee that there is no infestation on the property. The inspection may last up to one hour, and it usually requires a professional to have unfettered access to the home’s exterior and interior.
As a general rule, termite inspectors will look in the places that termites like to build a colony for signs that they are there. For example, in an area where subterranean termites can thrive, inspectors will look for mud tubes or droppings outside the home. In regions where drywood termites are common, they must look in the home’s interior as well. Because inspectors do not want to cut into a property owner’s walls without cause, they will usually inspect most open areas. Someone who has a house full of furniture or clutter piled high might not get as comprehensive of an inspection.
If the professional believes that there could be an infestation on the property, they may use additional tools to discover where it is located or the extent of the problem. Typically, they will use sensors or gauges that measure things like sound. This allows them to gain more information without damaging the property until they know more precisely what they are dealing with.
Whether homeowners have an active infestation or would simply like to prevent one, they often need to consider using some kind of treatment method. The options that people have available depend on the type of termite. As a general rule, using treatments as prevention is much more effective than using treatments as a way to control an active infestation. In most cases, homeowners may need to apply their preferred choice of treatment multiple times before the infestation has been completely exterminated. Afterward, they may need to follow up with regular treatment to reduce the chances of a new colony coming in.
For subterranean or dampwood termites, liquid treatments can be effective for pest management or prevention. Most of the time, a professional will dig small trenches around the foundation of the home. They may have to drill holes into the foundation if the colony is living inside the wood instead of the soil. In these trenches, professionals can deposit liquid poisons that will kill the termites. The way that the chemicals control the colony depends on the type. Some render worker termites unable to chew wood, which means they starve the colony. Others kill all the termites that encounter the poison. The best route depends on the type of termite and the extent of the infestation.
Although liquid termite treatments are one of the most useful approaches to extermination, they still may not be extremely effective. A very large colony may have the ability to bypass the chemicals or wait until they dissipate. Old chemical treatments used to last longer, but they presented a number of environmental risks. Modern options are less toxic to the environment as a whole, but they may not be as effective. In most cases, people will need several applications for an active infestation.
Homeowners may need to be wary about their application of liquid termiticides because some products can be harmful to beneficial insects or poison other animals that come in contact with them. As such, people should be careful where they apply their liquid termiticides and how much they use. Many termiticide manufacturers require someone to be a professional exterminator in order to use the products.
For homeowners who are unsure of the extent of an infestation or are looking for a product that is easier to DIY, termite baits may be a more practical choice. These baits operate similarly to the kinds of ant baits that people might put inside their homes. People put the baits in places outside the home, where certain kinds of termites are more likely to enter in search of food. The bait itself provides an attractive food source. The termites gather the food and take it back to the colony. The food source contains a poison that will kill large numbers of the colony, if not exterminating it entirely.
Although termite baits are relatively easy to purchase and place for homeowners, they do not tend to be terribly effective. This is because people can only have a certain number of baits around the property. It is difficult to place baits in areas where termites are likely to go, especially to deal with a drywood termite infestation. Baits are usually placed several feet apart at various points on the property. This makes the baits relatively easy for termites to avoid, unless people are willing to drill into the foundation.
The termite bait method also takes longer to verify efficacy. In most cases, a professional will place the baits and then return in a few months to determine if termites have actually used them. In that time, termites that are able to avoid the baits may be continuing to build an infestation inside the home’s structure. As a result, baits usually are not the best choice for an extensive infestation or one that has already caused significant damage.
Choosing a Termite Treatment
The choice between baits and a chemical treatment is better made once homeowners know the extent of the infestation. If people know that they have a drywood termite infestation in their attic, they may need to consult an exterminator for additional options. Otherwise, they can stick to general rules when making a choice. Liquid treatments are more likely to be effective, but they may cost more for the initial application. People who need to do the work themselves or who want to limit the scope of the treatment may prefer to try baits first. In many cases, homeowners end up using more than one approach to solve the problem.
DIY or Call a Pro?
Most of the time, homeowners may find themselves out of their league when trying to battle a termite infestation. People who are not sure if they have termites might be able to gather more information by doing a visual inspection of their own every few months. Homeowners who are willing to check on the home exterior and hidden areas of the interior on a regular basis will be more likely to spot termite leavings or wood damage.
Typically, homeowners who know that they have an infestation should consider hiring a professional to perform a more complete inspection of the structure. Professionals, even if they are not providing extermination services, may be able to help people determine where an infestation is located and how large it has become. Using chemical treatments to kill termites usually is not a DIY job. However, homeowners who are willing to do the research and can consult a pest control company as needed may be able to choose whether to have a professional do it or try something like termite baits instead. Ultimately, the best route for homeowners is to monitor for signs of an infestation and take quick action when needed, regardless of whether or not they call a professional or do it themselves.