Termites cause billions of dollars in damage to homes and buildings every year
Everyone knows that termites cause horrific damage to a building, but exactly to what extent is not so widely understood. It’s likely much worse than ever imagined – latest industry estimates place the annual cost of damage and treatment at $5 billion worldwide.
“No pest is more threatening to a structure than termites,” says Mark Lacey, director of technical and field services for the National Pest Management Association (NPMA), a trade association representing professional pest management companies in the U.S. and around the world.
Subterranean termites are by far the most destructive species. They can collapse a building entirely, meaning possible financial ruin for a homeowner. The hard, saw-toothed jaws of termites work like shears and are able to bite off extremely small fragments of wood, one piece at a time.
When termites infest buildings, they damage lumber, wood panels, flooring, sheetrock, wallpaper, plastics, paper products, and fabric made of plant fibers. The most serious damage is the loss of structural strength. Other costly losses include attacks on flooring, carpeting, art work, books, clothing, furniture, and valuable papers.
To deal with termite infestation, virtually all experts advise calling a pest management professional to protect the most important investment most people will make in their lifetime: their home.
“Trained professionals can help identify the termites, determine the extent of infestation, and recommend a prompt, effective control program using an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) strategy,” Lacey says.
Currently, there are three types of treatments available for use by the professional: soil treatments, wood treatments and baits.
Soil treatments are liquid termiticides diluted with water to ensure adequate coverage in the soil. Injection of this system in the soil creates a treated area that repels or reduces the population of termites and envelops the structure with a long-term protection. This is the most commonly used system and may be used in combination with baits and/or wood treatment.
Wood treatments involve treating infested wood or potentially infested wood with liquids such as a traditional treatment or borate materials. This treatment type protects the wood from infestation and reduces or eliminates the infestation in the wood at the time of the treatment.
Baits are relatively new and involve installing bait stations in the ground. Termites then eat the bait and carry the active ingredient throughout the colony or area, thus reducing foraging, which in turn reduces the colony population. Baits are popular since there is no interior drilling, and they are less bother for the homeowner.
Scientists say that, based on normal feeding activity, it takes three to eight years to cause appreciable damage. Some experts predict that, under ideal conditions, a termite colony of 60,000 workers may consume a one foot of 2-inch by 4-inch pine in 118 to 157 days.
The total number of individuals in a colony of subterranean termites may be more than a million. Imagine a million insects invading your home? In actuality, termites do not “attack;” they forage, attracted to moist areas, and find food sources. Termites need to maintain an atmosphere of nearly 100% humidity.Â
Recognizing termites is tricky, since they are often difficult to distinguish from flying ants. Termites swarm in the spring and fall when a group of adult males and females leave their nest to establish a new colony
Termites have relatively straight, beadlike antennae, while ants have elbowed antennae. Termites have two pair of wings (front and back) that are of almost equal length. Ants also have two pair of wings but the fore wings are much larger than the hind wings. The abdomen of the termite is broadly joined to the thorax while the abdomen and thorax of the ant are joined by a narrow waist.Â
Termite damage can be located by probing wood with a screwdriver, ice pick, or knife. Start inspection in the basement and use a bright flashlight. Look for telltale “mud tubes” or shelter tubes about the diameter of a pencil that are solid evidence of termite activity. Worker termites are blind and sensitive to heat, cold, and dry air, which is why they build mud tubes.Â
Wood damaged by termites always has remains of mud tubes attached to wood tunnels in an irregular pattern. The tunnels may contain broken mud particles with fecal materials. The presence of flying winged males, females or their shed wings inside the building indicates and infestation.
Worker termites find new food sources such as vegetation or wood containing cellulose. Upon finding a food source, they put down a chemical signal or pheromone to lead the other workers to the feeding site.Â
Each colony develops its own characteristic odor. An intruder is instantly recognized and an alarm pheromone is secreted that triggers soldier termites to attack. They are less numerous in the colony than workers and their only function is to defend the colony against invaders. The top caste in the termite colony is the king and queen; the queen may live up to 25 years and lay more than 60,000 eggs in her lifetime. The eggs are yellowish white and hatch after an incubation of 50 to 60 days.
Experts from the NPMA offer several tips to avoid termite infestation:
- Since termites are attracted to moisture, avoid moisture accumulation near your home’s foundation. Divert water away with properly functioning downspouts, gutters and splash blocks.
- Reduce humidity in crawl spaces with proper ventilation. Prevent shrubs, vines and other vegetation from growing over and covering vents.
- Before and during construction, never bury wood scraps or waste lumber in the backfill, especially near the building. Be sure to remove old form boards, grade stakes, etc., left in place after the building was constructed. Remove old tree stumps and roots around and beneath the building.
- Most importantly, eliminate any wood contact with the soil. An 18-inch gap between the soil and wood portions of the building is ideal.