Few insects strike fear in the hearts of homeowners the way termites do and rightly so. Termites work quietly and can do thousands in damage before anyone notices they’re there. To protect your home, get familiar with the signs of an infestation and the treatment options.
Common Signs of a Termite Infestation
Termite infestations often go unnoticed until the damage is severe, but these insects do give some early warning signs. By staying alert for these signs, you can spot an infestation while it’s still small.
Adventurous insects – The most common first signs of a termite infestation are the termites themselves or their dropped wings. Termites you see out and about in your rooms are usually winged “swarming” termites scouting for new territory where they can start another colony. Swarming termites are easy to mistake for flying ants, but the two insects have distinct differences. Termites have thick bodies, straight antennae, and four equally sized wings. Flying ants have narrow midsections, bent antennae, and front wings that are larger than their back wings.
Funny noises – If you suspect part of your home harbors termites, tap the wood there and listen closely. You might hear the soft clicking or rattling noises known as “head banging” termites use as an alarm signal. In addition, drywood termites sometimes create a rustling sound as they move.
Damaged wood – If part of your floor, wall or other solid wood surface sounds hollow when you knock on it, chances are it has termite damage.
Difficult doors and windows – When termites eat door and window frames, they cause damage and produce moisture that warp the wood and cause the doors and windows to stick when you use them.
Types of Termites: Know Your Enemy
Before you can formulate your plan of attack against a termite infestation, you need to know what type of termites you have. Several dozen species of termites live in the United States and U.S. territories, but just three are responsible for the majority of infestations. These bugs are more common in the south, but they can show up in any state besides Alaska.
The most common and most destructive of termite species, these insects build distinctive mud tubes, or “carton” nests, underground. If you have an infestation of subterranean termites, the colony is most likely located under your foundation. While you might find some of their mud tubes running along the outside of your foundation, they’re just as likely to be in less obvious places, such as behind the siding or under the floor.
Winged swarming termites coming out of the floors and interior walls or baseboards are often the first signs of a subterranean termite infestation. You might also notice dark patches or narrow blisters on your wood flooring or walls. Because subterranean termites eat only the soft cellulose between the wood grain, the galleries they create as they eat run straight, following the wood grain.
These termites are less dependent on moisture, so they live above ground and build their nests inside the wood structures they eat. You’ll typically find the colony living inside a floor, wall, or the house framing. If you’re lucky, the colony will be limited to a piece of furniture you can throw out before the infestation spreads.
While you might spot swarming drywood termites, the first signs you’re likely to see are the numerous tiny bore holes, or “kickout” holes, they chew into the infested wood. Beside these holes, you might notice tiny piles of debris made from the termites’ waste. Drywood termites eat across the wood grain, so their galleries are made of irregularly shaped chambers.
The moisture preferences of these termites make them less likely to infest a house compared to the other common species. While they don’t need soil contact like subterranean termites, they need more moisture than drywood termites. They favor damp wood of the type found in rotting logs and woodpiles or near water sources, such as leaky pipes. When they do enter a house, they’re usually found in the basement or attic.
As the physically largest termite species in the U.S., they can do even more damage than subterranean termites if the colony grows big enough. That situation is rare, though. Rather than forming one large colony, dampwood termites live in multiple small groups.
They typically eat across the wood grain and create irregular, chambered galleries. In especially damp conditions, tiny piles of moist waste pellets build up in or near the galleries.
Less Common Species
Formosan termites and conehead termites also occur in the U.S. Formosan termites are similar to subterranean termites in appearance and behavior, but are even more voracious eaters. Conehead termites, named for their dark, cone-shaped heads, build mud tubes, but frequently leave them to seek new food sources.
If you have doubts about the species infesting your home, ask a pest control professional.
Getting Rid of a Termite Infestation
The most effective way to get rid of termites depends on the termite species. Generally, killing a subterranean termite colony requires treating the soil in which it’s located. For drywood and dampwood termites, which live inside wood, you’ll need to treat the wood directly. These two methods aren’t mutually exclusive, however, so an exterminator might recommend both.
If you realize a piece of furniture, firewood, or another wood item you brought in is carrying drywood termites, it might be enough just to remove that item from the house. Then either treat it, destroy it, or store it least 20 feet from the house. Drywood termites spread fast, though, so stay alert for signs they’re still in your home.
If your house is infested, you might be able to treat the infestation yourself as long as it’s small. For damage covering more than around 10 sq. ft., you’re better off calling an exterminator. A professional exterminator has the knowledge needed to correctly identify the termite species, choose the most effective treatment, and locate the colony in order to eradicate it completely.
Termite Control Methods
To prepare for treatment application, a trench of 6 in. deep must be dug all the way around the foundation. The trench is then filled with liquid termiticide and backfilled with soil. Concrete areas must be drilled into once per foot, and termiticide poured into each hole. This kills any termites returning to the colony and prevents future re-infestations.
For interior treatment, the floor covering must be pulled back to allow access to the concrete foundation slab. This slab will also be drilled, and a termiticide applied in the holes. If you’re willing to do the digging and drilling, you might be able to treat a small infestation yourself with a borate-based product such as Tim-bor or Bora-care.
Termiticide sprays and foams are formulated to be used above ground on termite-infested wood. For most of these products, holes must be drilled into the infested wood, and the treatment solution injected into these holes. The major producers of borate-based DIY soil treatments also make products for direct wood treatment.
This method involves setting out bait stations that contain a poisoned termite food source. In theory, the termites should pick up this food and carry it back to the colony, gradually killing off the whole colony. In reality, baiting is the least effective method of termite control. It’s also a slow method that’s vulnerable to changes in the weather. Baiting is reserved for locations where standard treatments are impractical, such as near concrete surfaces that would be difficult to drill into. If you want to use this method, get guidance from a professional first.
Used for extensive infestations of drywood termites, fumigation involves covering the whole house with a tent, then pumping in a gas fumigant to kill the termites. After treatment, the house is uncovered and aired out. The air is then tested for safety before you can return. You’ll need a licensed fumigator for the job. While some small jobs can be done in less than a day, others take a full week. For this time, you’ll need to find somewhere else for your family and pets to stay as well as remove all food, medications, and plants and store them elsewhere.
Heat (Thermal) Treatment
Also called heat fumigation, this method is reserved for large colonies of drywood termites. It involves heating the entire house to temperatures of at least 120 degrees for at least 35 minutes to kill the termites living inside the wood in your house. Before the treatment, you might need to remove certain items from your house and turn of certain equipment. Your pest control professionals will then bring in specially designed heaters that blow hot air through your house. The process takes less than a day. It can easily fail if done incorrectly, so if you go this route, choose a company with proven experience in termite heat treatment.
Some termite species can do extensive damage in a matter of months, so if you spot signs of termite activity, contact a pest control professional for guidance as soon as possible. Even if you ultimately decide to treat the infestation yourself, tips from a pro can make the difference between success and ongoing destruction.