The good news is that early detection of termite infestation can keep damage to a minimum—but the downside is that termites can be really hard to spot. “Termites are called hidden invaders for good reason. Often there is nothing visible to the untrained eye indicating that termites are eating a structure,” says Pari Pachamuthu, entomologist and Technical Director of pest control company Rentokil Steritech, with regional brands that include Western Exterminator, Presto-X, and Ehrlich Pest Control. Instead of looking for the insects themselves, you should check for telltale signs of damage and for other clues they leave behind.
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SIGNS OF TERMITE DAMAGE
There are two types of termites, drywood and subterranean. (Both look very similar to flying ants, so it’s possible you may need to call in a professional for a firm identification.) Drywood termites are active above ground and live fully within the wood they infest. Subterranean termites live below ground and travel to structures through the ground. Subterranean termites need lots of moisture, and they build mud tubes as they travel to protect themselves from dehydration. Both eat away the wood inside your home, which can eventually damage its structural integrity. If you notice any of these signs, there’s a good chance you’re living with termites:
● Wood damage is probably the most well-known sign that termites are eating away at your house. If you find or break open a piece of wood that is layered or carved out, you can bet you’re dealing with termites. Severely damaged wood will sound hollow when tapped, and Pachamuthu recommends prodding suspect wood when a butter knife or flathead screwdriver to determine if it’s been hollowed.
● Piles of coarse grains of sand appearing mysteriously are likely drywood termite fecal pellets (also called frass).
● Mud tubes along walls, baseboards, or in cracks and crevices indicate subterranean termites.
● Blistering, sagging laminate flooring could be a sign that termites are at work in the floorboards underneath. A spongy floor is also a cause for alarm.
● Unexplained cracks in both exterior and interior walls, ceilings, beams, and rafters, as well as decking and wooden fence posts, could mean termites are present.
● Sticking windows and doors can indicate that termites are tunneling inside the frames, causing them to become misshapen.
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WHAT TO DO IF YOU THINK YOU HAVE TERMITES
If you think you may have termites, call a reputable pest control company to come out and assess the situation. Though you can go the DIY route with less insidious pests like ants and stinkbugs, home applications for termites typically can’t get to the root of the problem deep inside your walls and will be ineffective.
Go with an exterminator who practices green pest control. In this case, you may not be able to avoid pesticides entirely (the choice may be between using them and losing your home, after all), but an expert who uses green pest control practices will concentrate on addressing specific target areas, applying only the amount of pesticide needed, and not using them in your living space. Biorational pesticides, which are derived from natural materials and are less toxic to non-target species, may also be an option. Green pest control professionals will also use integrated pest management techniques to keep termites from returning to your property and causing further damage.
HOW TO PREVENT TERMITES IN THE FIRST PLACE
Ideally, the first step you should take to get rid of termites is to keep them out in the first place.
The first tipoff that you could be headed for a termite problem is the presence of termite swarmers flying near your windows and leaving discarded wings behind. Spring and fall are the main times that termites swarm, and drywood termites typically do so on very warm, sunny days. Subterranean termites will be on the move after early seasonal rains, when the upper layers of soil are loosened. However, termites are active all year round, so keep an eye out for them in the summer and winter, too.
To keep them from swarming into your house take these precautions:
● Schedule a termite check with a pest control expert every 2-3 years, as termites can do appreciable damage within 2 years.
● Stop up any leaks in your plumbing (subterranean termites love moisture).
● Fill in all cracks in your foundation, concrete, masonry work, and around your roof.
● Avoid moisture accumulation around the foundation of your home. Keep your gutters and downspouts clear of debris and working smoothly. When watering flowerbeds alongside your house, try not to get stucco or wood siding wet.
● Keep foundation air vents fully exposed (not overgrown with shrubbery) to keep moisture down.
● Fix broken or waterlogged roof tiles, which act as an entry point for both moisture and termites.
● Make sure no wood on your house is in direct contact with soil. There should be at least an 18-inch gap (typically concrete) between the ground and any wood.
● Consider a termite baiting system, which can be installed in the ground around your home. This involves a series of “traps” that hold food, like cardboard, that’s been laced with a slow-acting substance lethal to termites. The poison is only introduced once the presence of termites is detected. You can use a baiting system to keep more termites from entering your home if you already have an infestation or as a preventative measure, especially if you’ve had termite trouble in the past.