QUESTION 1: Just what is a termite?
Termites are small, pale to brownish black in color, insects
that feed on wood. The opening picture of this webpage shows a
picture of drywood termites, common to California (see Univ. Toronto
link for more on what other termites look like for other areas
of the United States). Termites' closest insect relatives are
cockroaches! Termites have been in north America for more than
20 million years. There are at least 50 different kinds (species)
of termites in North America. However, most can be lumped into
one of three ecological groups; dampwood, drywood, and subterranean
(see UC Davis Pest Note link for more termite ecological groups).
Dampwood termites are common in fallen logs in forests and are
uncommon as structural pests. Dampwood termites are our largest
species of termite in north America (more half an inch). Subterranean
termites are the most common ecological group of termites encountered.
They are our smallest ecological group of termite, less than a
quarter inch in length. Subterranean termites form large nests
in the ground and forage out to attack wood using shelter tubes
(also called mudtubes) that they construct. These tubes are constructed
from the soil, bits of chewed wood, and excrement from termites.
Drywood termites are opposite in their ecology compared to subterranean
termites; they do not require soil contact. Drywood termites attack
wood above soil level. Drywood termites are larger than subterranean
termites but smaller than dampwood termites; about half an inch
in size (see Urban Entomology, Washington State, and UC Davis
Pest Notes links for more on termite damage).
QUESTION 2: Why do termites look so different?
Termites are social insects. This means they have different looking
individuals, called castes, to carry out the tasks or jobs of
the colony. These tasks include reproduction done by the king
and queen, defense conducted by soldiers, and workers who conduct
most the activities of the colony; finding food, building nests,
and taking care of the eggs and young termites (see Urban Entomology
and UC Davis Pest Note links for more on termite castes).
QUESTION 3: What do termites eat?
Termites eat cellulose, the basic building block of wood. Millions
of homes in north America are built of wood, and if left unprotected
or monitored, can fall prey to termite attack.
QUESTION 4: How do I know when I have a termite problem?
Most homeowners will rarely see termites. These are secretive,
cryptic insects that hide deep in wood or soil. However, during
the spring and into the fall (depending of the species), termite
colonies produce swarmers. These swarmers are new kings and queens.
Their job is to start new colonies. Don't worry, more than 99%
will die in the first few days of life (birds, other insects,
and a hostile environment all take their toll). Sometimes, for
subterranean termites, you may also notice their shelter tubes.
These tubes are about the diameter of a pencil (sometime larger)
and are made of soil. If you break one open, you may see a live
termite inside! Drywood termites will produce granular pellets,
they look allot like large grains of pepper. However, they can
vary in color. If you look closely with a hand lens, you have
see the ridges on individual pellets. These ridges are diagnostic
for drywood termites. Of course, if you are seeing mudtubes, swarmers,
and pellets in all rooms of the house, its definitely a problem
and time to seek professional help. Real estate transfers may
also require a termite inspection (normally these are highly recommended
from lending institutions, they are not mandated by law). Finding
signs of termite activity in your yard, should not alarm you.
Termites in and about the yard is normal and you will see these
signs from time-to-time. Of course, if you do notice termite activity
in the yard that appear odd or alarms you, seek out professional
pest control help.
QUESTION 5: How do I pick the right termite company?
The rule-of-thumb when dealing with contractor and services companies,
is to obtain at least three written price quotes before deciding
on service (see PCOC link for list of qualified pest control operators
in your area). For some states, California included, the pest
control industry polices themselves through a board composed of
industry and public members. In California, this board is called
the Structural Pest Control Board (SPCB) located in Sacramento,
CA. Individuals and companies seeking to do business in California,
must be licensed by this board and show evidence of insurance.
The requirements for licensing is difficult. One of the services
of the SPCB is to maintain a database of consumer complaints against
firms contracted to conduct termite work. If undecided on the
qualifications of a firm, you can request information from the
complaint database. However, this database is only helpful if
you know the company name and license number. An additional limitation
on the database is that it is only maintained for several years
before being purged of information. Lastly, ask for referrals
from previously served customers. Often, satisfied consumers are
the best source of information for a company's dependability,
reliability, and creditability.
QUESTIONS 6: When do I need treatment?
A very difficult question to answer. Especially on a computer
screen having not seen the particulars of the problem in your
home! Let's start off with the obvious treatment situations. If
thousands of subterranean termite swarmers have suddenly appeared
in your bathroom or dozens of mudtubes now decorate a living room
wall; Yes, its time to seek professional help. If you are suddenly
ankle deep in drywood termite pellets in every room of your house;
Yes its time to seek professional help. There are some definite
times not to seek help. The appearance of termite swarmers or
mudtubes in a wood pile or from a tree stump are very natural
and are no cause for alarm. Now for a more difficult situation.
A mudtube in spring suddenly appears on your foundation wall.
Is this cause for alarm? Maybe? Can the tube just simply be knocked
down? Here in California, our subterranean termites can be easily
disturbed. However, if the mudtube shortly reappears, or if the
mudtube disappears into an inaccessible area away from normal
viewing, its probably time to seek professional help. Drywood
termites are even more difficult to find and determine the extent
of their damage because their colonies are very small, anywhere
in the structure, and it can be a long time before they make their
presence known by pellets or swarmers. If you sudden notice small
piles of pellets, its probably a good idea to have a professional
look at it. Inspections are quick to conduct and relatively inexpensive
(free to several hundred dollars depending on the locality and
architectural complexity of your home).
QUESTIONS 7: What are the treatment options?
There is no right answer to this question. Treatment options
vary considerably with the species of termite, extent, and degree
of infestation. There are many variables. If you know the species
of termite infesting your home, the six papers in the Research
Paper section of this webpage can help. If your termite problem
is caused by drywood termites, the UC Davis Pest Note link has
a table that lists the strengths and limitations of many chemical
and nonchemical methods of control. If your termite problem is
caused by subterranean termites, the paper entitled Alternative
Control Strategies for Termites (see Research Paper section),
also lists many chemical and nonchemical options. It may be helpful
to you to review some of these papers before seeking professional
QUESTION 8: Are the treatment options safe?
Federal and some state statues strictly regulate pesticide use
and guarantee the short-term and long-term safety of chemicals
for termite control when used per label instructions by qualified
professionals. An abbreviated version of the safety information
is included in a document called, Materials Safety Data Sheet
(MSDS). By law, all pest control operators should have these sheets
in their service vehicles. You can also request this information
from your termite control provider. Some papers in the Research
Paper section of this webpage contain some safety information
for a number of termite control methods (UC Davis Pest Notes and
PCOC links also contain useful information). A word of caution.
Beware of buying unregulated materials claiming termite control
(mail order, tele-marketing, infommercials). All termite control
methods, if approved, should have federal authorization. If in
doubt, contact your local state department of pesticide regulation.
QUESTION 9: Can I do the inspection & treatment myself?
No, termite inspections and treatments are very detailed and
complicated. Treatments, especially underneath or in attics of
homes can be dangerous. It's best to leave the inspections and
treatments to professionals who are licensed and knowledgeable
to the conditions unique to your area. In fact, most termite treatment
materials are registered as professional use only and therefore
are restricted from public use.
QUESTION 10: Can anything be done to prevent termites?
Termites are only a problem if they gain access to wood, particularly
those wooden members that make up our homes and surrounding decks
and fences. Scrape wood, fire wood, or cardboard laying under
homes in subareas or near foundations walls can be a source of
subterranean termite attack. All cellulose materials in soil-contact
need to be removed. Subterranean and dampwood termites also like
water. An additional preventative tactic includes the fixing or
removal of sources of water. Leaking pipes, leaky irrigation systems,
and over-watered planter boxes may be sources of attraction to
termites. Sand barriers, metal barriers, and wood chemically treated
have varying levels of success in preventing termite attack (see
Research Paper section and UC Davis Pest Note link). For drywood
termites, yearly walkabouts of your home looking for piles of
pellets is a good preventive practice (remember area between walls
and inaccessible locations will be difficult or impossible to
visually inspect). If you are not sure if a pile was really produced
by drywood termites, they can vacuumed or swept away. If the piles
reappear, it probably time to seek professional help. Finally,
there is some evidence that certain forms of chemically treated
wood (pressure-treated and professionally topically applied) can
prevent the establishment of new colonies by termite kings and