It’s that time of the year to watch for possible termite infestation. If you see a problem in your home, study the following questions and answers to determine the proper way to treat your home.
Why worry about termites? Termites cause billions of dollars in damage each year. They primarily feed on wood, but also damage paper, books, insulation, and even swimming pool liners and filtration systems. Termites injure living trees and shrubs, but more often are a secondary invader of woody plants already in decline. While buildings may become infested at any time, termites are of particular importance when buying or selling a home since a termite inspection/infestation report is normally a condition of sale. Besides the monetary impact, thousands of winged termites emerging inside one’s home are an emotionally trying experience – not to mention the thought of termites silently feasting on one’s largest investment.
Why are infestations often discovered during March – May? Spring typically is when large numbers of winged termites, known as “swarmers”, emerge inside homes. In nature, termites swarm to disperse and start new colonies. Triggered by warmer temperatures and rainfall, the winged termites emerge from the colony and fly into the air. The swarmers then drop to the ground, shed their wings, pair off with a mate, and attempt to begin new colonies in the soil. Few swarmers emerging outdoors survive to start new colonies. Swarmers emerging indoors are incapable of eating wood, seldom survive, and are best removed with a vacuum. They do, however, indicate that an infestation is present.
How will I know if my home is infested? Discovering winged termites indoors almost always indicates an infestation warranting treatment. People often confuse winged termites with ants, which often swarm at the same time of year. Termites can be differentiated by their straight antennae, uniform waist and wings of equal size. (Ants have elbowed antennae, constricted waists and forewings that are longer than the hind wings.)
The swarmers are attracted to light and are often seen around windows and doors. Termite swarmers emerging from tree stumps, woodpiles, and other locations out in the yard are not necessarily cause for concern, and do not necessarily mean that the house is infested. On the other hand, if winged termites are seen emerging from the base of a foundation wall or adjoining porches and patios, there’s a good chance the house is infested also and treatment may be warranted.
Other signs of infestation are earthen (mud) tubes extending over foundation walls, support piers, sill plates, floor joists, etc. The mud tubes are typically about the diameter of a pencil, but sometimes can be thicker.
Termites construct these tubes for shelter as they travel between their underground colonies and structure. To help determine if an infestation is active, the tubes may be broken open and checked for the presence of small, creamy-white worker termites.
Can I treat the house myself? Ridding a home of termites requires special skills. A knowledge of building construction is needed to identify the critical areas where termites are likely to enter. Many of these potential points of entry are hidden and difficult to access. Termite control also utilizes specialized equipment such as masonry drills, pumps, large-capacity tanks, and soil treatment rods. A typical treatment may involve hundreds of gallons of liquid pesticide, known as termiticide, injected into the ground alongside the foundation, beneath concrete slabs, and within foundation walls.
In short, termite treatment is a job for professionals. A possible exception would be if a mailbox post, sandbox, or other small wooden object not attached to the house was infested. “Do-it-yourself” products, sold to homeowners at retail stores or bought over the internet, will seldom eradicate an existing termite problem.
Which treatment methods and products are most effective? This is another challenging question. There are two general categories of termite treatment, liquids and baits. Soil-applied liquid termiticides have been around for decades. Their purpose is to provide a long-lasting chemical barrier that excludes termites in the ground from entering buildings. In most cases, termites in the structure die off as well, since they cannot return to the soil. Most former products were repellent rather than lethal to termites foraging the soil. Newer materials, such as Premise (imidacloprid), Termidor (fipronil), and Phantom (chlorfenapyr), are non-repellent and termites tunneling into the treatment zone are killed. Overall the non-repellent products are proving to be reliable in their ability to resolve termite problems in the first attempt. All registered termiticides (both repellent and non-repellent) can be effective, however, and homeowners should not base their purchasing decision on product alone.
Does the entire house need to be treated…. Or can they just treat areas where I see termites? Subterranean termite colonies may contain hundreds of thousands of individuals, foraging in many different directions. For the homeowner, localized or “spot” treatments are generally a gamble except in cases of retreatment. Most reputable pest control firms will not warranty spot treatments, since it’s likely that termites will eventually find other points of entry into the structure.
Some companies may offer to do a so-called “perimeter” treatment, using one of the non-repellent liquid termiticies (Termidor, Premise, etc.). Typically this will involve a thorough application around the entire outside foundation wall of the building, and spot-treating any infested or high-risk interior areas. If the homeowner is considering such a treatment, they should inquire whether it will be accompanied by a service agreement in case termites return. (Service renewal agreements usually state that if termites return, the company will return and retreat the affected areas at no additional charge provided the renewal agreement is maintained.) It’s a bit of a gamble to purchase any termite treatment option without an ongoing service agreement.
How long will the treatment last? All liquid treatments are supposed to control termites for at least five years when applied according to label directions. The actual length of control on a given structure will depend on such factors as thoroughness of the application, environmental conditions, and density of termites in the area. If termites swarm again and continue to be a problem the year after treatment, it’s usually not form degradation of the termiticide – but because termites have found an untreated gap in the chemical barrier.
Will the chemicals harm my family or pets? Termiticides are tested extensively for adverse effects on health. Before a product can be used, numerous studies are conducted by the manufacturer and independently evaluated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Based on the current body of knowledge, registered termiticides pose no significant hazard to humans, pets or the environment when applied according to label directions. Despite the negligible health risk from a properly performed termite treatment, people with lingering concerns should consult their physician. Most of the newer liquids products have essentially no odor. Clients who are still apprehensive may want to consider having their home treated with baits.
Caution! Pesticides recommendations in this publication are registered for use in Kentucky only! The use of some products may not be legal in your state or country. Please check with your local county extension agent or regulatory official before using any pesticide mentioned in this article.
Of course, always read and follow label directions for safe use of any pesticide.