Termites - Understanding Termite Basics
Termites — could anything be more nerve shattering than the discovery that you have termites infesting your home? That fright could be for a good reason, as termites often are present for one reason only, and that is to eat the available wood that constitutes the home.
Why is termite control so mysterious? Well, first of all the pests themselves usually are completely hidden from view during their normal activities, and come to light only when an inspection of the hidden areas is performed, or damage is broken into and discovered during remodeling. Sometimes their presence is discovered when hundreds of them suddenly “swarm” inside the home. Since the majority of termite species live in colonies in the ground it now is a mystery to you how to stop them.
Termites are insects. They also are “social” insects, meaning that they live in colonies where they communicate with each other, and cooperate in all the activities needed for the survival of the colony. The colony was started years ago by a Queen and King termite, that crawled or flew to that spot from some other colony, where they originated.
The Queen lays the eggs – possibly several thousand each day in some kinds of termites – and the workers gather the eggs, care for them, feed the new nymphs that come from the eggs, and take care of all the other functions – gathering food, enlarging the colony galleries, etc. There also is a caste of termites present called “soldiers”, and with their huge heads and long jaws they effec-tively protect the colony from enemies, such as ants.
Now, before we start to hate termites too badly, please understand their role in nature, and the importance of that role.
Nature recycles everything eventually. Plants and animals eventually die – perhaps in several thousand years if it is a Knobcone Pine from the southwest desert mountains, or in just a few days if it is a little Mayfly. Even rocks are recycled, by water, lichens, animals, and other influences that attack the rock’s structure, and this may take millions of years, eventually creating gravel or soil that is more useful for the growth of plants.
When a tree dies it no longer serves to provide its intended function – shade, oxygen production, new trees from seeds. At the moment it dies recycling processes begin, and one of those is the rapid degradation by insects, termites included. Termites eat the wood, creating large pockets in the previously solid mass, allowing other animals and moisture in, and eventually the once solid tree is reduced to sawdust and humus that can be reused by the forest.
Without termites diligently working in this recycling process Nature simply would not function well, and their role, obviously, is an important one. Unfortunately, termites are not a discriminating lot. We humans make many things from trees – boards, paper, books – and as far as the foraging termite worker is concerned, wood is wood! If it used to be a tree, then it needs to be recycled, and the attempt is made, even if we aren’t actually done with the product just yet.
The 3 Basic Kinds of Termites
1) Dampwood Termites – the easiest to keep out of a home, because they require high moisture levels in the areas they live. Preventing this moisture, or eliminating the problem that causes it, will eliminate the termites, and that level of moisture is unacceptable in a structure anyhow. Sometimes these very large termites also are called “Rottonwood” Termites, as the wet wood they require tends to become rotted and soft more quickly.
These termites may be common in some areas of the country, where forests provide them with plenty of food from dead trees. This commonly is mountains or other forested environments, but Dampwood Termites can exist in urban cities also.
2) Drywood Termites – these prefer very dry wood, can enter the structure and infest from anywhere, and generally maintain small colonies that work slowly. Over time they can cause great damage, but not nearly at the rate of subterranean termites. Drywood termites are far less common in the U.S., being present in “pockets” in California, Hawaii, Florida, and a few other areas. However, where they are common they can be very common.
Evidence of drywood termites is usually their small, dry, hard, cylindrical fecal pellets that appear on surfaces below the wood they are infesting. These termites push these pellets out of their chambers in order to keep their galleries clear. Control is usually fumigation – tenting the structure completely and introducing a toxic gas that penetrates the wood to kill all the termites throughout the structure. Since drywood termites do not leave the wood at all, something must be capable of penetrating into their galleries for control.
There are a number of “alternative” methods of control being tried, for control of drywood termites, in an effort to reduce the use of fumigants. These methods may work, but most still await objective testing to determine how well.
3) Subterranean Termites – so called because they usually are coming from well-established colonies underground, which have a Queen, King, and many, many thousands of workers. There are numerous kinds of subterranean termites, the most damaging of which in the U.S. is the Formosan Termite. This species is common in Hawaii, well established in the Gulf Coast States, found in Southern California, but absent elsewhere, as it is a tropical species that does not do well in colder climates.
Subterranean Termites are the hardest to control, because there is no possible way to actually get to the below-ground colony to kill it, with the possible exception of new termite baits which may, over time, eliminate the colony. Termite baiting is discussed in a separate document. Except for the bait products, “control” of subterranean termites consists of modifying the structure to make access to the wooden parts as difficult as possible, and applying a chemical barrier on the soil, under the structure, which the termites cannot pass through, holding them away from the structure.
Movement by Subterranean Termites, once they leave their hidden galleries in the soil, always is within tubes of mud that they build, using their saliva to hold the bits of mud together. Usually these tubes are made against a solid surface, such as a foundation or pier post, but occasionally may simply rise from the ground and go directly into your subflooring as tubes referred to as “free-standing”.
Thus, the termites are alive and well below your home – or possibly in the neighbor’s yard, or the woods out back – looking for other sources of food, but unable to use your house.
Those factors that assist these termites in their activities are:
- direct access to the wood, called “earth-to-wood contact”, which must be separated
- excessive moisture, which helps them survive and work quickly
- excessive wooden debris in crawl spaces or outside the structure, allowing them local food that may draw higher numbers of workers to an area
Correcting these kinds of conditions is part of the “physical” stage of Integrated Pest Management, and should be done regardless of whether chemicals or baiting are to be used as well.
So, what kinds of questions should you ask a termite company to make sure you fully understand the problem, and what they intend to do to correct it?
First of all, find out what kind(s) of termites are present. This probably is listed on an inspection report. Knowing that will help you to understand the control method involved.
If it is Dampwoods there usually is no chemical application needed, except to kill off some surviving members once the excessive moisture condition is corrected, which will drive them away anyhow.
If it is Drywoods the structure likely will be tarped and fumigated. This takes 2 to 5 days, depending on the fumigant used, kills all existing termites in the structure, but leaves no future protection, as the gas dissipates and is gone. Vikane is the preferred gas due to its ease of handling and shorter time of ventilation, while methyl bromide is preferred for beetle control.
If it is Subterranean Termites you would like to know what product they plan to use, and what the benefits are compared with others. You currently have 4 choices (in addition to baiting):
- Organophosphates – probably last the longest, but have some odor associated with it that you might find unpleasant for a day or two, but which poses no hazard if properly applied.
These must be applied as an injection under the slab, or in trenches dug around the foundation in crawlspaces or outside.
- Pyrethroids – this is newer chemistry, and benefits to you include low toxic hazard and very low odor. Some of them even are the same materials used on animals for flea or tick control, and for termites they may last up to 15 years.
There is some limited use on the surface of the soil in a crawlspace, but for the most part all pyrethroids also are applied by injecting into the soil or applying to a trench dug along next to the foundation.
- New Chemistry – some new materials have come onto the market that are neither organophosphates nor pyrethroids. They are very, very low in hazard to people and pets. In fact, the active ingredient in one is the same as the chemical that is in a popular material placed on pets for flea control, sold by veterinarians.
One feature of these new products is their lack of repellency to termites. It is believed that this may enhance their effectiveness, by allowing termites to move into the “treated zone” and be killed.
- Biological products – this includes a natural fungus, and when applied to surfaces the termites will contact it is supposed to infect the termites, as well as any others that these termites, in turn, come into contact with, and may kill large numbers of termites in the colony.
The advantage of such biological products lies primarily in their extremely low hazard to people or pets. They currently have not been as widely used as the other kinds of products, so industry experience with them is more limited.
There also are nematodes – microscopic, living worms that eat termites – that are sold for termite control. They pose no hazard to people, but many objective studies of them, so far, indicate they do not do well at controlling termites in natural settings, as opposed to the laboratory settings where they are studied.
You might also be tempted to try one of the marvelous magic boxes – called things like “ultrasonic” or “electro-magnetic” – and touted by the advertisers of them to be able to drive away all sorts of bugs and rodents that you don’t want around. Dozens of objective University studies from around the world claim that they simply do not work, and you are probably better off not putting your faith and money in them.
Finally, there is Termite Baiting, and this is important enough to discuss in a separate issue of our BugInfo articles. We hope you will take the time to read through this as well.
Hopefully, in this short article, we have been able to unravel a few of the mysteries you might have felt about termites. Much of the protection of your home can be accomplished by those things you yourself can do – maintaining clean, dry crawlspace areas, eliminating moisture problems, checking for the mud tubes made by foraging subterranean termites, keeping wood piles away from the home.
When it comes to the application of chemicals, it is best to contact a licensed pest control company, as these experts will have the specialized equipment and expertise available for applying the materials where they are needed.