- There are more than 2,600 species of termites worldwide and 45 living in North America.
- Termites are not technically pests. While they are a nuisance for homeowners around the world, they are actually very beneficial for the environment as they help decompose plant fibers and turn decaying trees into new soil.
- Wood cellulose digestion – termites’ main occupation – would have been impossible without the aid of the 100+ species of bacteria, protozoa, and other single-cell organisms living in their guts.
- Some scientists estimate that for each human being on the planet comes 1,000 pounds of termites.
- A female queen lays one egg every 15 seconds, which amounts to 30,000 eggs per day.
- Termite workers and soldiers are almost always blind; only the king and queen have eyesight, because they need it for reproduction purposes.
Termites are small (3/8 inch long), soft-bodied insects that feed on dead materials commonly found in tropical and sub-tropical areas. There are at least 45 different species of termites living in North America (and more than 2,600 worldwide), but homeowners will most often stumble upon the winged, cream-colored form, with straight antennae, broad waist, and legs of the same size of their bodies.
Worker termites are light caramel in color and have no wings. They make up most part of a colony and are the ones most often caught when examining infested wood. Inside the nest, their tasks are clearly outlined: they take care of the immature termites, forage for food, feed nest mates, clean the nest, construct and maintain shelter tubes and galleries, as well as protect the colony from predators, along with soldiers.
The reproductive adults are darker in color and present two equal-sized pair of wings (known as alates). Once they start swarming and establish new colonies, they shed their wings. The queen is largest in size, with a weight exceeding many times that of workers, having just one primary function: laying eggs, sometimes thousands per day.
Diet, Behavior & Habits
Wood is the preferred food of most termites, but some species also feed on grass and other matter. The wood-eating species extract the cellulose, sugar, and starches from logs, stumps, dead limbs of living trees, and human constructions with wooden structure, also getting protein from fungi growing in high-moisture areas. They usually stop at the heartwood (core of the wood), which is much harder and contains toxins that repel termites.
Although termites are referred to as “wood eaters,” they aren’t, in fact, eating
the wood. Most species have microorganisms living in their gut that allow them to break down the cellulose from wood and turn it into easily-digestible sugars. Bacteria, protozoa, and other single-cell organisms are typically responsible for the cellulose digestion and are transferred to members of the nest (especially from adults to young) during grooming sessions.
Termites, especially the subterranean species, require a constant source of water and humidity levels close to 100% to develop. The temperature inside the nest doesn’t usually exceed 36 degrees Celsius, but this largely depends on the species, the health of the colony, and external temperature. Sometimes, the nest is specifically built to regulate and maintain a certain temperature, in order to remain protected from the hot summer sun and also get enough warmth and humidity during winter months.
Signs of Infestation
Being on the alert for termites may significantly lower the chances of infestation. The biggest issue with early detection and prevention of termites is that they rarely emerge from the soil, so most homeowners find out they have termites when their property is already infested. Here are some telltale signs you have a termite infestation on your hands:
- Looking out for swarms is probably the easiest way to identify a termite problem. Swarms are a common sight during spring when some termites leave their colony to form a new one.
- Break one of the pencil-thick shelter tubes termites build from mud and soil across exposed areas, such as foundation walls, decks, or utility entrances, to see if they’re active. Termites need moisture to survive, so if they are present on your property, the shelter tubes will probably get rebuilt quickly.
- Where there is rotten wood, there are usually termites, so remove mulch and other obstacles to check suspicious areas near your house Use a flathead screwdriver to probe the wood and expose existing cavities.
- Differentiate between termite damage and water damage by checking for small quantities of dirt typically brought by termites into the small tunnels inside the wood.
- Another indication of termites is the presence of wings, left behind by swarmers on windowsills, near access points, or caught in cobwebs.
- Piles of termite droppings similar in appearance to sawdust could be a sign of infestation. Some species of termites push their excrements out of the nest, making a small pile on the floor or windowsill.
Management & Control
Control methods are either whole-structure (simultaneously treating all infestations in all areas of the building) or localized (restrictive). Choosing the appropriate control method should be carried out by a licensed pest control professional, after performing the initial inspection to determine the type and size of infestation. For instance, control methods effective in the extermination of drywood termites may have no impact on subterranean colonies, since the large majority of the latter (including those with a role in reproduction) are concentrated in galleries and tunnels out of reach of heat or fumigation treatments.
The primary control methods of subterranean termites are insecticides applied directly to the soil and bait stations. Insecticides can be either applied in drenches or injected in the soil near the structure or directly inside the shelter tubes. Correct application will increase the likelihood of completely eliminating the infestation, while applying insecticides in the wrong place can result in contamination of heating ducts or damage to the plumbing system. It is crucial to ensure that all toxic substances used in the process are handled by pest management professionals only.
Baiting stations for subterranean termites also involve the use of insecticides, but of the slow-acting variety that use insect growth regulators that ensure the systematic and complete destruction of the entire colony. Setting up baiting stations is an effective extermination method, preferred primarily because it doesn’t require site preparation or extensive use of toxic substances. The most effective baiting products are available for professional use only.
Other methods (used mainly for the management and control of drywood termites) include the use of fumigants, heat treatments, chemical liquids and dusts, chemical foams, liquid nitrogen, electrocution, microwaves, and biological control.
If you want to make your house uninviting for the pesky creatures, you must make it hard for termites to find the things they need for survival: wood, moisture, and shelter. Here are some measures you can employ:
- Don’t keep any wood stacked near the house
- Remove wood debris, dead trees, stumps, and roots located near the structure
- Limit the use of mulch too close to the house’s foundation
- Don’t allow rainwater to accumulate near the foundation
- Clean gutters and down-spouts regularly
- Repair leaking pipes, faucets, and air conditioners
- To ensure proper ventilation in crawlspaces, make sure there is no vegetation covering vents
- Ensure your basement doesn’t have a high level of humidity
- Trim branches and vegetation in order to disrupt their contact with the house walls
- Regularly inspect cracks inside concrete slabs for signs of infestation