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Termites Are Hungry… and Your Home is the Drive Thru

Termites are a diverse and ecologically important group of insects found all over the world. There are over 2,600 types of termites worldwide, 45 of which are present in the U.S. With a large presence on every land mass except Antarctica, they are considered one of the most successful life forms on earth. While people most often think of termites in terms of the damage that they can do to human structures, their roles throughout the world’s ecosystems are overwhelmingly positive. They serve as decomposers, breaking down dead wood into rich hummus. There are, however, a handful of species that can be extremely destructive to furniture, buildings and other wooden products. Termites cause an estimated $1.7 billion in damage and control costs every year in the U.S.

The Life of the Termite

Termites are social insects that are part of the cockroach order Blattodea. While they are often called “white ants,” they are not from the same family as true ants. Like ants, however, most termites distribute labor through different castes which include sterile workers (which are both male and female), soldiers and fertile kings and queens. A termite colony can range in size from a few hundred members to several million. Their colonies are considered superorganisms because individual termites make up a large self-regulating organism.

All termites live on the cellulose in wood. Each termite goes through life stages that include egg, nymph and adult stages. Some termites are broken down into three castes, with workers, soldiers and reproductives. However, in some, immature termites fill the worker role, while adults are broken down into soldiers and reproductive members. Soldiers are distinguished by their lance-like mandibles. Alates, one type of reproductive, develop wings before going off to form a new colony.

Types of Termites

Termites typically fall into three main groups, each of which occupies a different habitat and has different behavior and biology.

It can be difficult to tell what type of termite you are dealing with by looking at the workers or nymphs. Because of this, termite experts look to soldiers and reproductive habits to see which type of termite has infested a home or yard.

Drywood Termites

These are termites that live in wood that includes dead trees, hardwood floors, and the structural timbers that hold up homes. Drywood termites do not have a true worker caste like other termites do. Instead, the worker role is filled by immature termites.

Drywood Termites

Many drywood species can do extensive damage to homes. However, their colonies tend to be small, with only a few thousand members, which means that they cause damage at a slower rate. These termites do not live in the ground or construct mud tubes.

Unlike subterranean termites, which produce liquid feces, drywood termites produce small pellets. These pellets are often the first sign of a drywood termite infestation.

Drywood termites typically enter homes during the flight stage of the reproductives. Homes are most vulnerable to drywood infestations when they are built in recently cleared areas, since the wood in those areas serves as the termites’ natural habitat. They will fly in under wood shingles, through exposed wood trim or window frames or through attic and foundation vents.

Subterranean Termites

These are termites that build large nests inside the soil. Their nests are the largest of any insect that lives in the U.S. and are connected via tubes to their food sources. Food sources can include trees, wooden fence posts, and the structural timbers of buildings. These termites, which are found in every state besides Alaska, are the cause of most termite damage in the U.S.

Subterranean Termites

The worker caste is responsible for all labor in a subterranean termite colony. They build tubes, locate food, repair the nest, care for the young and feed and groom all of the other castes. Typically, young termites take on the feeding and grooming chores while older ones take on the more dangerous foraging and building tasks. Workers are the termites that are found in infested wood. They have soft, milky white bodies but hard mandibles adapted for chewing wood.

Soldiers are in charge of colony defense, protecting against foreign termites and invading ants. They look similar to the workers, but have a hard yellow-brown head. Their mandibles are adapted to fight. This, however, leaves them unable to feed themselves, so they must be fed by workers.

Subterranean termites will range below and above ground looking for food. They will create utility tubes that go up structures and protect the termites from dehydration and attacks by predators. These tubes can sometimes be seen on the foundation of infested buildings.

Dampwood Termites

These are termites in the families Hodotermitidea and Kalotermitidae which live in wood that has a high moisture content. Dampwood termites include nearly 100 species of termites and live mostly in tropical areas of the world. In the continental U.S, they are found only in Florida. They are also endemic to Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, and the Virgin Islands.

Dampwood Termites

These termites do not forage in the soil, nor do they require soil tunnels for movement.  They are rarely responsible for damage to manmade structures, as the wood in these buildings are typically too dry for them. They can be found in mangrove forests, subtropical woodlands and in urban areas in hot and humid areas.

Like drywood termites, dampwood termites do not have a true worker caste. Instead, immature termites serve in this role, while mature termites may serve as soldiers and reproductive termites. Soldiers make up around 5% of a colony’s population.

Winged reproductive termites, called alates, typically disperse in late spring or summer. They can be seen flying at or after dusk. They are attracted to lights, and may approach a home’s porch lights or even enter to be near computer monitors and TVs. Typically, when these termites are seen indoors, it is because they have infested a nearby tree’s damp wood.

They are, on rare occasions, found to infest a structure. However, this only happens in a structure where water has damaged the wood, since otherwise the wood in a home is too dry for dampwood termites. Termite damage may be found in areas where there is exposed wood damaged by roof leaks, wood that is exposed to regular rainfall, or wood that is regularly wet by sprinklers. Once the source of moisture is removed, the termite colony will die from desiccation.

How to Know if There Is an Infestation

If you see flying termites in your home, this is almost a sure sign of a termite infestation. Termites can be distinguished from flying ants through a number of features. Termites have straight antennae, equally sized wings and a uniform waist. Ants, by contrast, have smaller waists, antennae that bend and hind wings that are shorter than their forewings.

Termite Infestation

You may also see mud tubes that extend from the ground up foundation walls. They are usually around the diameter of a pencil.

Termite damaged wood is typically tunneled out along the grain of the wood. You will also often see bits of dried mud inside the damaged areas.

If you have drywood termites, you may also see pellets near small holes in wood in your home.

However, in many cases, no signs are visible at all. An infestation can go on behind the walls and under floors for years before discovery.

Controlling Termites

Termites are the pest that generate the most calls to entomology departments at universities. However, termite control is typically best left to professionals.

Termite control requires an understanding of both building construction and the habits of termites. Many of the areas where termites enter a home are difficult to detect.

A typical termite treatment will require specialized tools such as soil treatment rods, masonry drills, and large capacity tanks that hold hundreds of gallons of termite-killing insecticide.

A termite control company must be licensed by the state’s Department of Agriculture. They will also typically hold a membership in the National Pest Management Association or your state’s pest control association. Since termite damage occurs slowly, there is no need to rush if you suspect termite damage. Take the time to vet a number of companies before choosing one.

Our Relationship with Termites

In the U.S., termites are typically seen solely as destructive. However, working unseen, they break down cellulose in wood, making soil fertile so that new plants can grow. In other areas of the world, they serve as a food source and a spiritual totem. Our relationship with this widespread and highly adaptable species is complex and deserves fascination alongside the caution against them.