Termites are extremely important in nature because they recycle fallen trees back into soil. Unfortunately, a termite cannot tell the difference between a pine log and a pine board. Termites cause more destruction to wood products and structures in homes in California than any other insect. Therefore, homeowners must understand termites and how they can be controlled.
The Termite Colony
Termites are social insects that live in highly organized colonies. Like many insects, termites have an egg, an immature, and an adult stage. There are three main types of adults: reproductives, soldiers, and workers. The reproductives include the king and queen and supplementary reproductives that produce eggs. The soldiers protect the colony from attackers such as ants. Workers are the heart of the colony. They clean and care for all the other termites and forage for food (wood and paper products).
When a colony is several years old and relatively large, it may produce another form of adult termite called a "swarmer."
Swarmers have four wings, are often brown or black, and range in size from approximately 1/4 to 3/8 inch. Swarmers are the colony's way of sending out new kings and queens to start colonies of their own. In the spring, great numbers of swarmers can fly from a single colony.
Swarmers are the most visible form of termite. Usually a homeowner realizes termites are present in or around the home when a swarm is seen. Swarming termites can be confused with many ants that swarm in the spring. If you look closely, you can see that swarming ants have elbowed antennae, a narrow waist, and front wings that are longer than the back wings. Swarming termites have straight antennae, a thick waist, and all the wings are the same length.
As their name indicates, subterranean termites usually live underground, excavating passageways to reach wood. Their passageways can be quite complex, extending 10 feet underground and over an acre in area. The soil provides a source of moisture that protects the termites from drying and shields them from predators. The soil also provides building materials for the protective shelter tubes the termites use to forage for wood above the ground.
The best way to protect your home against termite attack is with a combination of prevention and inspection.
The best control method is protecting your house from attack. For example, if you are building a new house, make sure there will be several inches (at least) between the soil and any lumber. This distance will force the subterranean termites to build shelter tubes, which are about the width of a pencil, from the ground to reach the wood in your house. The tubes make it easier to find and control areas where termites attack.
When building, your contractor should remove all roots, stumps, grade stakes, scrap lumber, and other wood debris before your house is completed. After completion, continue to keep wood debris from collecting under or near your house, including piles of firewood.
Homes built over a crawl-space should have good ventilation and possibly a vapor barrier to keep moisture levels low. The finished grade on all buildings should slope away from the foundation to keep water from collecting near the house. Proper construction and repair of gutters, roofs, pipes, and other potential sources of water for above-ground termite infestation are very important.
You should also ask your contractor about additional building practices he or she plans to use to reduce the chance of termite infestation, such as capping foundation walls and using treated lumber.
Insecticide treatments (termiticides) must be used to control established termite colonies.
Termiticides should be applied only by a highly trained California certified pest control applicator. Successful termite treatments require many gallons of diluted soil termiticides applied with specialized equipment. Termiticide application at this level is beyond the ability of most homeowners. To protect your home, the environment, and yourself, employ a professional pest control company.
The pest control inspector will provide you with a sketch of your home with structural problems and infestations clearly marked.
Remember, your home is probably the most expensive purchase you will make in your lifetime. With a little time and a little knowledge, termite damage can be avoided.