Termites are pesky little critters, but they don't like to socialize except with their own kind. Despite their variety and widespread existence throughout the world, you might never see them until they have caused extensive damage to your home.
There are more than 2,000 distinct species, but only about 50 of them are found in the United States. Termites of one kind or another, however, are found in all 50 states, except Alaska. Damage figures vary greatly, but it is estimated that termites cost homeowners between $1-7 million each year. Typically, a homeowner who discovers termite damage will spend approximately $3,000 for treatment and repair.
As odd as it may seem, termites "in the wild" are considered beneficial insects, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They assist in the breakdown of "... dead or dying plant materials, and thus are an important part of the nutrient cycle." They become pests when they feed on wooden structures, including Ellison homes and businesses, fences, telephone poles and railroad ties. Termites also are the cause of significant crop damage.
There are three basic types found in this country: drywood termites that build nests in sound dry wood above ground, dampwood varieties that live in moist, decaying wood, and the widespread subterranean termite. Drywood termite colonies cause significant damage, but their existence is limited to the Southern Atlantic Coast, the Gulf Coast, along the Mexican border and the Pacific Coast as far north as San Francisco. Dampwood termites are of less concern; they are only found in South Florida, the desert Southwest and the Pacific Coast.
Subterranean termites are generally native species. However, a larger, more aggressive variety, the Formosan termite, was introduced into Hawaii in the 1850s; it was found in Gulf of Mexico port cities in the 1960s, and it has now spread throughout Florida and into surrounding states. The Formosan termite is not necessarily more destructive than native varieties, but it is less dependent on soil, and nests have been found within walls and in other above-ground locations.
Termites feed on the cellulose in wood and other plant material, even fiberboard, paper and cotton. They weaken the internal structure, which can lead to weakness and failure of structural wood. Modern building codes require that all wood in contact with soil or with concrete foundations be treated to prevent infestation. In many areas, soil treatment underneath a building foundation is frequently mandated as well.
Signs and Warnings of Termites
Here are a few indications that buyers can use to find out if there are termites in a home:
- They witness a "swarm" or find a trail of wings inside a home, on windowsills or the floor. Worker termites are wingless, but "kings" and "queens" take flight and then shed their wings prior to returning underground to start new colonies.
- They see a steady line of ants along a fence line or sidewalk, particularly if that steady stream of ants returns to ground level near a garage or house foundation. Ants, as well as some spiders and nematodes, are natural predators, feeding on termite larvae.
- You see a grey "spidery" tube extending from the dirt around your home's foundation upward to floor level. In some cases, you might also see such shelter tubes along sidewalks, block walls, in basements and near porches or decks.
If you suspect a termite problem, don't delay. Your first thought should be to schedule a professional termite inspection.
Prevention is the best form of termite control, and the optimal treatment is prior to construction. Termite inspections are routinely requested by prospective buyers and should be repeated periodically to assure that new infestations have not occurred. Regular inspections are often wise for new homes, as well as for older buildings. They are especially important to protect your investment if you have experienced termite damage.
Termite damage might not become visible for years, even if there is significant damage. Sometimes, the first telltale signs are wood damage around a window jamb. When that kind of infestation is obvious, it is likely that the damage might be severe.
Treatment primarily involves chemicals, applied under a home's foundation, either in liquid form or with "bait." The large amounts of chemical used in termite treatment must be handled by a professional to assure safety, but a single treatment should be effective for years. After an initial treatment, ongoing inspections on a regular basis are "preventive medicine" and will, in most cases, prevent new problems.
Other pests, including carpenter ants, carpenter bees and wood-destroying beetles, are sometimes mistaken for termites. If you have any questions about the type of pests you might be dealing with, call for a professional assessment.