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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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 help.
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.
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.
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 queens.