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Everything you need to know about termites

These miniscule bugs can cause major damage to your property.

Wood that has been eating by termites. Credit: Getty Images

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Termites are pesky little insects that can eat away at your home, potentially causing major structural damage that can cost you big money in home repairs (and plenty of headaches). I know this firsthand after a swarm showed up at my front door one hot evening in late spring. While we (luckily) avoided an infestation and opted for preventative treatment, it was enough to send me into a tizzy of research about these tiny, wood-eating bugs.

Even if you don’t actively have termites, taking a proactive approach can help you avoid a potential infestation down the road. Here’s what you need to know about termites.

The family dynamics of termites and termite colonies

Termites eating a piece of wood.
Credit: Getty Images

Termites work together, sharing a variety of responsibilities to keep the colony functioning.

Termites are communal insects that build underground colonies and are made up of three castes: workers, soldiers, and swarmers (also known as reproductives). Each caste plays a different role in building, maintaining, and protecting the colony.

Worker termites, which appear translucent due to the lack of pigmentation, can be hard to spot since they spend most of their time building tunnels and caring for the colony. Worker termites, which have a lifespan of two years or less, account for over 90% of the colony.

Soldier termites have large, dark-colored heads and make up around 2% to 4% of the colony. Their main role is to protect the colony from intruders, though they have no eyes or wings.

Swarmers are fully developed adult termites with functional wings and eyes (unlike their other family members). Swarmers like hot, humid climates and emerge when temperatures reach around 70 degrees and begin looking for a mate. You may find them around exterior lights, doors, and windows once the weather starts to warm up. Once swarmer termites find a mate, the pair identifies a location to nest, becoming the king and queen of the newly-formed colony. They are the main reproductives for the colony, with the queen laying up to 20,000 to 30,000 eggs per day.

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Swarmer termites may also be easily confused for flying ants, as the two do look similar in appearance. However, a closer look reveals a few key differences. For example, flying ants have bent antennas, different-sized wings, and a small waist. Whereas swarmer termites have straight antennae, symmetrical wings, and a straight waist.

Three main types of termites

There are over 2,000 species of termites in the world. At least 45 reside here in the U.S. and can be broken down into three main categories: Dampwood, Drywood, and Subterranean.

Dampwood termites

As the name suggests, they are attracted to damp wood like tree stumps and branches, logs, and any other wood structure touching the ground. It's less common to find them in roof leaks or broken drain pipes, but it can happen. Within the Dampwood termite family are four kinds of species: Desert Dampwood, Florida Dampwood, Nevada Dampwood, and Pacific Dampwood.

This breed of termite is usually found in areas of the country like California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington. They can also be found in the southwest region of the U.S. and parts of Florida. Dampwood termites are easy to identify because they are bigger than subterranean termites. One of the telltale signs of a dampwood termite is its large head with mandibles. They do not make mud tubes like other termite species. Instead, they use their feces to cover up entry holes, making them hard to spot.

Drywood termites

Under the drywood termite umbrella are three specific types: Southeastern, West Indian, and the Western (or desert). These termites are typically found in warm climates like southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and throughout all of Florida. They aren’t typically found in cold-weather climates. These termites can be hard to spot, as they like to set up shop inside of pieces of dry wood where they're not always visible to the naked eye. They have a thick waist, symmetrical wings, and straight antennae.

Subterranean termites

Subterranean termites are extremely pernicious and the most common type of termite in the U.S., appearing in every state but Alaska. (Though they're more commonly found in the southern portion of the U.S. where warm weather is abundant.) The subterranean termite family is home to at least seven different types. Subterranean termites need moisture to survive, which is why they burrow underground in wet climates and enter your home from the ground up, though you may find them in wet wood, too.

The Formosan subterranean termite is the most destructive of the bunch. Formosan subterranean termites are commonly found in Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. These “super termites” are known to chow down on wood, cardboard boxes, and paper. However, it's not uncommon for Formosan termites to eat foam insulation boards, thin lead and copper sheeting, plaster, asphalt, and certain plastics, but never concrete. They develop large colonies up to 300 feet and can invade everything from boats to high-rise buildings.

Ways to prevent termites

A termite bait station in the ground surrounded by grass.
Credit: Reviewed / Rachel Murphy

We opted to have termite bait stations installed around the perimeter of our home to help to help prevent a future infestation.

The bad news is that termites are not 100% preventable. Both old homes and new homes are susceptible to termites. The good news is there are several proactive steps you can take to protect your home from potential termite damage.

Current homeowners can minimize termite damage to their property by removing any wood immediately near the foundation of the home that touches the soil like lumber, cardboard, and plants.

Using rocks around the foundation of your home to landscape and add curb appeal is a better option than mulch, which can also attract termites. Make sure to have proper drainage around your home to avoid excess soil moisture (which can attract termites), as well as any broken faucets or pipes in or around your home.

Finally, termite swarmers are attracted to bright lights. If you leave exterior lights on at night, consider turning them off to avoid attracting swarms of termites until it cools off outside.

If you’re building a new home in an area prone to termites, talk to your builder about local building codes in regards to termites. Some states like North Carolina require termite protection for newly-constructed homes for the structure to be up to current code. These treatments can include soil termiticides around the foundation and crawl spaces, termite baits, treatment of structural wood, and the use of stainless steel mesh around the foundation, pipes, and posts.

What to do if you have termites

A house covered in a fumigation tent.
Credit: Getty Images

If an active termite infestation is found in your home, a professional pest company may recommend treatment options like a fumigation tent.

Termite damage can take years to show up, unfortunately. However, there are obvious signs to be on the lookout for such as crumbling wood, maze-like mud tubes on the inside or outside of your home, and sagging drywall. Then, there are some not-so-obvious signs of termite activity like small, pin-sized holes in drywall, windows or doors that are hard to open, squeaky floorboards, and peeling paint that looks like it could be from water damage.

If you suspect you might have termites, call your local pest control company. Most will come out and do a free evaluation to determine what type of termites you have. This also includes a quick examination of the structure to check for damage.

If you don’t have an active infestation, the pest control company may recommend preventative treatments like termite bait stations, which are installed every 10-15 feet around your home, roughly 12 to 24 inches away from the foundation. If you have an active termite infestation, you may need to fumigate and tent your home.

The average homeowner spends roughly $3,000 on termite cleanup. Choose a pest control company that is licensed, bonded, and insured, and don’t be afraid to ask friends and neighbors for recommendations. Make sure to read online reviews and check the company against the Better Business Bureau.

Though many insurance policies do not cover termite damage, it never hurts to check to see if there are any coverage options. If you sign up for a yearly termite prevention program through a local pest control company, ask if it includes any warranty for structural repairs should your home suffer termite damage after preventative treatment. Not all companies offer this, but some do. Make sure to read the fine print and ask questions upfront (via email or in writing is best) before you pay or sign any contracts.

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