Termite Fast Facts: What You Need To Know

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Termite holes close up
Termites will eat into wood to cause massive damage in homes. ilbusca/E+/Getty Images

Termites are one of the most destructive insect pests of the entire world, with the Formosan termite along causing a third of the damage that is caused by all invasive insects - and termites are only found within 40 degrees north and south of the Equator. In the U.S. alone, termites cause more than a billion dollars in damage every year! And approximately $2 billion is spent every year in the U.S. to prevent or treat for termites? 

Although it said that two of Christopher of Columbus' ships became so infested wit termites that they sank during his final expedition, Columbus is not to be blamed for bringing termites to the Americas. These wood-eating insects were in North America well before the Europeans arrived. In fact there is fossil evidence of termites during the Cretaceous period, and some scientist believe that termites actually predate humans.

Despite all the damage and destruction termites have wreaked since almost the beginning of time, these ant-like insects are actually beneficial in nature, aiding in the decomposition of dead and decaying wood and the return of nutrients to the soil.

Following are a number of facts about termite species, their identification, biology and behavior, colonies, signs of infestation, and their control.

Termite Species 

  • There are only about 10 species of termites know in Europe, and there are about 50 known species  in North America. But in South America, there are more than 400 known species!
  • There are three types of termite - drywood, dampwood, and subterranean.
  • As their name implies, subterranean termites, which include the Formosan variety, infest homes from the ground up, directly into damp or damaged wood, or through mud tubes they build along concrete foundations or through crawlspaces.

Termite Identification

  • When winged, termites are often confused with carpenter ants. But they can be differentiated by
    -  the ant's narrow waist, compared to termites's solid body;
    - the ant's elbowed antennae, compared to the termite's straight antennae;
    - the ant's unequal wing size, compared to the termite's equal wings.
  • Termites shed their wings when they find a place to build their nest.

Termite Biology and Behavior

  • The queen, who is the breeder of colony, can live up to 18 years.
  • Wood is the main food of all termites, even those that nest primarily in the soil.
  • Termites never sleep - they are always eating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
  • Termites swarm in the spring. The "swarmers" emerge from their nest, then land to shed their wings and mate to begin new colonies.
  • Swarming termites are a sure sign that there is an infestation nearby.
  • Mulch around a home can increase the potential of termite infestation, as it provides the insects with a means of connecting with the home and keeps the soils moist and temperate.

The Termite Colony

  • Termites live in colonies and build their nests in soil and/or wood. 
  • A mature colony will have a number of nesting and feeding sites, all connected by tunnels through the wood.
  • A single colony can have millions of termites and spread across a half an acre.
  • The termites literally eat the wood to build their colonies. Because they eat it from the inside out, you may not even know you have them until there is significant structural damage.
  • Like carpenter ants, dampwood termites infest wet and damaged wood. But drywood termites will infest and damage sound wood and will also eat wallpaper and plastics.
  • Drywood insects will tunnel into sound, undamaged wood, though they do need some moisture to survive.

Signs of termite presence are:

  • Mud tubes built by subterranean termites.
  • Flying, swarming termites.
  • The appearance of rippling or sunken areas behind wallpaper or other wall covering.
  • The interior of the wood hollowed out along the grain with dried mud or soil along the tunnels. (If tunnels are smooth, you are more likely to have a carpenter ant infestation.)

Termite Control

  • Because of the skill, equipment, and pesticides needed to eliminate termites, control requires professional treatment.
  • For more information on professional control, what to expect, and what you can to do prevent termites, see Have Termites? Here's What To Do and Expert Recommendations for Termite Prevention.