Termites are cryptic creatures. Their nests are concealed in the soil and their bridges to our homes are covered in mud. Because of their hidden nature, they are difficult to spot. Often, they invade homes through obscure places, mysteriously appearing in walls and windows or found sneaking up foundations in mud tubes. Seldom do we see termites in the open except during the swarm season when the winged termites (reproductives) leave the nest in large numbers to seek mates and start new colonies.
Termites are widely distributed throughout the southern plains. The US Forestry Department estimates that this region is heavily infested with subterranean termites with seven to eight colonies per acre. That means most quarter acre lots have 2 termite colonies active on the property. Chances are that they are in your yard, but the most important question is, “Are they feeding on my home?”
Termites are most commonly discovered during the spring when humans go outside to work on their houses in flower beds and yards. The most common sign is a shelter tube running from the ground up a foundation wall and entering a home where the siding meets the foundation, or inside the garage where the sheetrock or wood framing meets the concrete. If you scrape the tube open, little creamy-white insects will emerge indicating the termites are actively feeding on the structure. Sometimes, the only thing we see is mud packed in corners or joints where the termites have closed off a crack to seal in their movement and feeding. They bridge open areas in shelter tubes made of soil glued together with their secretions.
Termites need to maintain a very humid condition inside their colonies to survive. In normal ambient conditions, they will dry up and die if left exposed. Therefore, they maintain a closed system to block out dry air and sunlight. About the only time you will see them out in the open is during swarm season in April or May, usually when the weather warms to the 80’s and we’ve just had a shower. These conditions create an environment which favors the winged, “teenage” reproductive survivability when leaving the nest. They seek a mate and crawl under a log or rock to start a new colony.
When humans see a large number of flying insects exploding out of a crack or swarm castle (elevated mud tube) they’re usually alarmed. If the termites are inside a home they move toward windows or light sources seeking the outdoors. If the termites swarm outside, they are carried by the wind, fluttering along in the air. They are not good fliers. When they hit the ground, they pull off their wings and look for a mate, often wandering around the edges of walls and foundations.
Since ants also swarm during the warm months, they are often confused with termites, especially if they are in the winged stage. There are subtle physical differences between winged ants and termites. If you find winged insects in or around your home you should collect a specimen and have it identified. The County Extension Office has expert information available, or you can call a pest control professional for positive ID.
The third sign of termites in your home is damaged wood. If you find soft, hollow areas with galleries and mud, the chances are that termites have been there. Sometimes termites are present, sometimes they have moved on to other areas. Often, water-damaged wood will also be soft and somewhat hollow, but it will not contain galleries or mud. If you have questions, have the area evaluated by a pest control specialist.
The three signs of subterranean termites are
- Mud tubes extending from the ground to the wood elements of home. Tubes are usually the size of a soda straw.
- Flying winged termites swarming during the warm days of spring, usually after a rain shower
- Hollow, damaged wood with or without grubby off-white insects
Termite damage occurs slowly, It usually takes 3-5 years before significant damage occurs. However, because of their cryptic nature, termite activity can often be overlooked for long periods of time. They can be moving up a mud tube behind storage in the garage or even coming through a crack in the mortar joints of an exterior brick wall and not be noticed for years. If you home is more than five years, you should have it checked by a termite inspector every year or two.
Individual termites are easy to kill. Termite colonies are difficult to stop. Termites are persistent and will spend years finding ways back into your home. If you have termites, you should consult with a professional pest management specialist.