There are thousands of termite species—part of the order Isoptera—found worldwide. Termites are most destructive in warm, moist climates, though they continue to spread into new areas, especially as global temperatures continue to rise.
Termites cause billions of dollars in structural damage each year. The best way to avoid an expensive termite issue is to work ahead of the pest with preventative measures, but you should also know what to look for in case termite activity pops up unexpectedly. What can you do to get ahead of a termite problem, and what if you already have an established colony inside your home?
What Do Termites Look Like?
Before you can get rid of termites, you must first identify them. Identifying a termite issue can be tricky. Termites stay well hidden and the damage they cause can go undetected. Depending on where you live, some types of termites can cause extensive damage to your home, while others will not.
Termites have six legs and three main body segments called the head, thorax, and abdomen. Their antennae are straight and made of small, bead-like segments. Termites are surprisingly intelligent and social insects that live in colonies governed by a caste system.
3 Ways to Get Rid of Termites
It is important to choose the right treatment option for your termite situation. Certain termites require more aggressive treatment where others do not. Once you have a positive identification of the termite in question, then you can decide how to proceed.
Remove and Replace Damaged Wood
It is always best to remove and replace any damaged wood when dealing with a termite problem. Some types of termites, such as the Pacific Dampwood termite, require wet wood to infest. In these situations, simply removing and replacing the moisture damaged wood is enough to resolve the termite infestation, as these termites cannot infest dry wood. Other types of termites, however, will require removal of infested wood in tandem with other control methods.
Biological control methods require the introduction of a new species to control the pest problem. Termites have been effectively controlled by the introduction of certain nematodes and fungi into the environment. While these methods are considered natural because they do not involve chemical treatment, it is important to know what you are doing. Biological control methods can cause non-native species to create imbalance in the ecosystem, so make sure to do your research and don't be afraid of chemical treatments when it comes to severe termite issues.
In severe termite situations, chemical treatment is often needed. If you think chemical treatment is necessary, find a local pest pro to help. Make sure the company specializes in integrated pest management and follows labels meticulously. Any company you use should be licensed with the state you reside in. Professional pest control companies have access to a number of termiticides, which are treatments regulated by the EPA for termite control. Depending on the circumstances, treatment can involve applying a termiticide to the soil, infested wood, and/or baiting.
Improper termite treatments will not protect your home and can contaminate your living space as well as local wells and water sources. Many of the chemicals used in termite control are highly toxic and must be applied properly in order to work safely and effectively. Some instructions online will tell you how to apply these treatments yourself, which should not be done. In this situation, working with a professional will minimize the risk to you and your environment while maximizing effectiveness.
Signs of Termites
Termite issues can be difficult to detect. Though it may seem obvious, the first step in finding termites will be paying attention. Watching for termite swarms during the spring and summer months can give you an idea of nearby activity, but just because you're seeing winged reproductives around your home doesn't mean you have an active infestation in your house. Remember that ants swarm, too. Swarming can confirm the presence of nearby termite or ant nests, but it's not a reason to panic. It just means you live in a healthy ecosystem!
If you are concerned about termites, start by keeping an eye around your home for any damaged wood. Not only can damaged wood attract termites, but termites create intricate tunnel systems inside the wood they infest. As they chew their tunnels and digest the cellulose in the wood, they will leave behind a pellet-like, sawdust material called frass. This frass is a mix of wood debris and insect droppings that will pile up around tunnel holes when the termite issue is severe. If you are finding piles of frass around the wood items in your home, you could have some type of wood destroying insect present. Make sure you're seeing termite activity and not wood-boring beetle activity.
Inspecting for Termites
It can be difficult to tell the difference between moisture damage and termite damage. A good rule of thumb: Moisture-damaged wood attracts pests, including termites. If you have an active moisture issue in your home, fix it before it leads to bigger problems. If you have found damaged wood and you're not sure if you have a termite issue, try one of the following options:
- Moisture Meter: A moisture meter is a tool used to tell you the moisture content of wood. Some might see this as an unnecessary piece of equipment when it comes to finding termites, but a moisture meter can easily signal the presence of moisture-damaged wood. A reading of 20 percent or higher signals the ideal moisture content for a termite colony.
- The Knock Test: Termites can infest wood that looks perfectly normal from the outside. Termites do not hear, but they are very sensitive to vibration. Knock the outside of the wood and then put your ear against it. If there are termites inside, the soldiers will hear you knock and begin rattling their large heads against the tunnel walls to alert the rest of the colony of a potential threat. In certain situations, you will be able to hear this rattling inside the infested wood.
What Causes Termites?
If you have termites in your home, they either came up from the soil to infest wood or they were drawn to a moisture issue that created ideal conditions for them.
How to Prevent Termites
Termites are found worldwide and fossilized evidence indicates that termites have been around for more than 50 million years. Believe it or not, termites serve the beneficial function of breaking down rotting organic material and enriching the earth's soil, but it's important to make sure termites stay away from your house and outside where they belong. There are a number of ways to protect your home from termites, including:
Conduct a regular (at least once per year) inspection of your property for termites, as well as any conditions (namely, moisture-damaged wood) that could attract them. You can perform this inspection yourself or hire a professional to do it.
Pick a Concrete Foundation
Make sure your home has a concrete foundation. Fill and seal any cracks in the foundation, including any holes drilled for cables or pipes.
Keep the Foundation Clear
It can be tempting, but don't plant anything too close to the house. Also avoid piling firewood against your home. Keeping the foundation clear will make inspecting easier, keeps termites from having direct access to your home, and also keeps vents clear so as not to restrict air flow, which could encourage conditions that attract termites.
Create a Physical Barrier
If there is any exposed wood that touches the soil around your house, protect it by covering it with metal or sealant. Make sure there is ventilation space between any wood and the soil. During construction, some homes have steel mesh or certain types of sand installed around the foundation to aid in preventing termites.
Address Moisture Issues
Any situation that results in excess moisture can create favorable conditions for termites. Make sure the soil around your home drains well and stays dry. Fix leaks quickly and keep the vents around your home unblocked. Also make sure that your gutters, downspouts, and irrigation system are draining properly
Termites vs. Ants
Termites are commonly confused with ants but require different treatment, so make sure you know the key differences between termites and ants.
Ants and termites both live in colonies that produce winged reproductives. If you find one crawling around outside your home, don't panic! Both winged termite and ant reproductives have two sets of wings. Termites have two sets of wings that are close to equal in length, where ants have longer front wings than back wings. Ants have bent antennae and a narrow waist, where termites have straight antennae that look like a string of beads and a wider, broad waist.
Wings are equal in length
Front wings longer than back
Termite Caste System
Within a termite colony, there are three ranks to their caste system: workers, soldiers, and reproductives. All three of these ranks have a slightly different appearance, meaning not all termites in a colony look the same.
If you have busted into a termite colony and you can see termites crawling around inside, you are likely seeing worker termites inside their tunnels. Workers look like little white maggots with legs. They have also been described as looking like white or light grey colored ants.
The next caste up from workers are soldiers. Termite soldiers are known for their unsightly appearance. They have large, ugly heads with big, nasty looking jaws. These soldiers look frightening but are unlikely to bite you. They use their big head and jaws for intimidation and combat; it is their primary job to protect the colony.
The highest caste within a termite colony are the reproductives, or alates. These termites start out with wings and are responsible for mating and reproduction. Winged reproductives are most commonly seen on warm spring or summer evenings just after rains when conditions are perfect for swarming flights. During these flights, winged reproductives leave the colony in large numbers and attempt to start new colonies elsewhere. Once they have found an ideal spot, they lose their wings and settle in.
Where do termites come from?
Termites are found worldwide and play an important role in breaking down rotting organic material in the environment.
Will termites go away on their own?
In short: no. Depending on the type of termite, getting rid of them can be as easy as removing and replacing moisture-damaged wood, but until underlying causes are addressed, termites will not go away on their own.
Do termites bite?
While termites can have scary looking jaws, they do not bite humans. Termites use their jaws for chewing and breaking down wood and other organic material rich in cellulose.
Termites: How to Identify and Control Them. Environmental Protection Agency.
Termite Biology. Mississippi State University Extension.
Bourguignon, Thomas, et al. The Evolutionary History of Termites as Inferred from 66 Mitochondrial Genomes. Molecular Biology and Evolution, vol. 32, no. 2, 2015, pp. 406-421., doi:10.1093/molbev/msu308