What’s small, has wings and causes more destruction and property damage than fire and storms combined? That’s right, it’s the termite. In fact, a study by the Congressional Research Service, a part of the Library of Congress, estimates that termites cause $1 billion in damages every year, wreaking havoc on homeowners trying to protect their investments.
Any kind of termite or other wood-destroying insect eating your home can mean thousands of dollars in damages before you even know there’s a problem. The key is to know what to look for, including what the termites look like and any signs that they’ve decided to feast on your house.
The next step is to take preventive action to make sure you don’t experience a termite infestation, or contact a pest control company to get rid of the ones you do have before they cause problems that can’t be fixed.
Types of termites
Subterranean termites are the most destructive pests of wood in the United States, including right here in Texas. They have been on Earth for more than 250 million years and are tough, determined and highly efficient. They live in the soil, from just below the surface to many feet below ground.
A subterranean termite queen can live for decades, producing thousands of eggs each year regardless of her biological clock. Many of those offspring ("workers" and "swarmers") will eventually develop into kings and queens and break off to form new colonies. This means the reproductive potential of a colony is essentially unlimited.
Generally speaking, you can identify a subterranean termite by these features:
• Its wings are twice as long as its body;
• Its antennae are straight and not "elbowed" (like the antennae of ants); and
• Its body doesn’t have a conspicuous "waist-like" area.
As with other types of termites, the subterranean variety feasts on cellulose, which is found in wood, and dead trees and brush are the original food source of these termites. When land is cleared and houses are built on these sites, termites attack the structures — causing huge financial and property headaches for homeowners.
Drywood termites are another species that have been a problem in Texas. These pests are also relentless in their search for wood and cellulose food. Unlike subterranean termites, drywood termites live and colonize in the wood in your home, mate, and establish their own colonies of "nymphs."
However, this "Midsummer Night’s Dream" isn’t quite what William Shakespeare had in mind. Some nymphs develop into "soldiers" who defend the colony from outside predators — mainly ants. Others develop into "swarmers" who perform food-gathering and wood-destroying activities and start the biological cycle all over again.
There are also "powder post beetles" that can cause damage to seasoned hardwoods found in flooring, furniture and structural materials. And then there’s "old house borers" that, while in the larvae stage, can eat wood for up to five years before deciding they’ve had their fill of your house.
Termite warning signs
According to the department of entomology at Texas A&M University, these little pests can enter buildings through wood in direct contact with the soil, by building shelter tubes over or through foundations, or by entering directly through cracks or joints in and under foundations. But each type has its own particular warning signs, so it helps to be aware of both.
With subterranean termites, look for:
• Mud tubes connecting soil to wood
• Hollowed wood beneath a finished surface
• Discoloration behind paint or wallpaper
• Swarming termites, live workers or discarded wings
With drywood termites, look for:
• Swarming termites or discarded wings
• Actual damaged wood
• Small piles of wood-residue pellets
• Tiny holes in exposed wood
The good news is that, unlike the drama of cartoons, a termite infestation does not result in the immediate destruction of a home. It takes time for termites to do their work — plenty of time for owners to protect their properties.
"Generally," say the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "the first sign of infestation is the presence of swarming termites on the window or near indoor light. If they are found inside the house, it almost always means that they have infested. Other signs that may be found are: termite wings on window sills or in cobwebs, and shelter tubes, which are tunnels constructed by the termites from soil or wood and debris."
You should also closely examine the foundation of your home to see is there are mud shelter tubes there that might indicate termite activity. These shelter tubes are hollow soil tunnels extending from the soil to your house, and provide runways for subterranean termites to travel between their underground nest and their food supply (your home). If you find any suspicious mud structures, leave at least part of the material in place for a termite inspector to study.
You should also "remove all potential sources of outdoor infestation such as stored lumber, firewood, scrap lumber and dead trees or woody ornamental shrubbery away from the foundation of your home," advises the Texas Cooperative Extension service. This will reduce the chance of subterranean termite entry and make it easier to inspect your home.
Because strong chemicals are used against termites and other wood-boring insects, have extermination work done by professionals. Use the services of a licensed pest control operator who is properly insured and bonded. Ask about training and get guarantees in writing.
For more information on protecting your real estate investment from wood-destroying insects, contact your local county extension agent (http://county-tx.tamu.edu).
For services, contact RE/MAX Genesis at 830-833-2000 or go to www.lightfoot.com.