I'm writing this because I couldn't find an existing website that
directly addresses the termite questions people ask on
If you have termites you very probably have subterranean
termites. There are other kinds but, they're not nearly as
common in the US. You'll have to check the links at the end of
the page to learn about other kinds. This discussion applies only to
subterranean termites. This page
may help you tell which kind of termite you have, but it didn't seem too helpful
to me. If you decide you have drywood termites
Subterranean termites live in underground colonies (nests), that may be 5 to 10 feet below the surface. They're only about 1/8 inch long yet, the workers forage hundreds of feet, traveling underground, surfacing periodically, searching for food (wood) to feed the colony. If they find the wood your house is built of they can do a lot of damage.
Subterranean termites MUST have constant access to water. If they dry out, they die. Above ground, they maintain mud tunnels or tubes to the ground, which they keep wet with water from the ground.
One of the
two most common ways termites are detected is seeing these pencil
sized mud tubes. If you find one of these tubes and it's dry, it's
probably inactive. In any case, check it by scraping away a 1-2 inch
segment in the middle of the run. If it's active it will be rebuilt quickly--maybe in an hour or so, certainly in a day or two.
Occasionally, a colony can live above ground, in your house. This is unusual, because it requires
a very wet area for them to get enough water to keep the tubes wet. An area wet enough to
sustain a colony, will probably be noticeably wet (mildewed or water stained wall, etc.), though, I
understand the less common, Formosan termites, can survive on less water than ordinary
The other way they are detected is swarming. In early spring or summer, depending on the breed,
an established colony (~5+ years old) produces a jillion winged variants able to reproduce and
spread the species. If the colony has invaded your house, hundreds, even thousands of these little
critters may swarm out of your walls and cover a room or two. Trust me, it'll get your attention.
It's usually over as quickly as it starts, lasting probably an hour to a few hours. These swarmers
won't hurt you. They die quickly and you can vacuum them up. This eerie event may repeat in a
few days or about a week. If they swarm inside your house, you have termites, and must do
something, but not necessarily in a rush. Most termites work very slowly. Even an established
colony is likely to eat no more than a quarter to one 2x4 stud in a year. The less common
Formosan variety is more voracious. But, even it's nothing like what the Terminix and Orkin TV
ads would have you believe. If you discover you have termites, you should get on it, but act with
caution, at a thoughtful, deliberate speed. Note: Swarming outside of your house doesn't
necessarily suggest you have a problem inside.
Without one of these two signs, it's hard for anybody, including a professional, to tell if you have
termites until it's very obvious. They eat (hollow out) channels, called galleries, inside of wood
leaving the outside intact but, often, paper thin. If you suspect a specific area, look along trim
and molding (they like trim) near the floor for dark or discolored spots. Push around on exposed
wood with something hard, but smooth so you don't damage the paint, like the butt of a table
knife, or the round butt of a ballpoint pen. If they're advanced in the area, the wood will crush in.
Termites colonies are hard to destroy. The most common method of combating
subterranean termites is a barrier method. This amounts to poisoning the soil adjacent to all
places they can enter the house. The termites cannot go through this poisoned soil to enter the
house, thus it forms a barrier to entry. Because the treatment is sort of expensive, people who
discover one mud tube are often tempted to have that one area spot treated. This is almost
always a mistake. The colony is always there, constantly foraging over remarkable distances.
The colony attacking your house may actually be located beneath the house across the street. If
one area/zone is blocked they will soon fine the way around it--entering the house through any
untreated soil. Spot treatment only makes sense when there has been an effective whole house
treatment and the termites have found a breach in this otherwise effective barrier. To protect
ground and surface waters, the older effective termiticides have been banned. Older poisons
would last from 20 years to a lifetime. Current poisons are limited in effectiveness and lasting
power. What I've read says current treatments last 3 to 7 years.
Disclaimer: From here on it's mostly my opinions, and I ain't gonna argue about 'um! :-)
Who Should Do It?
A whole house treatment must be done by a professional. If you have a slab the big problem is
entry points through the slab from underneath--cracks, plumbing penetrations, expansion joints,
etc. They can squeeze through cracks as small as 1/64 inch. The colony may be beneath your
house, and workers from any colony will forage underneath it, searching endlessly for any
penetration. Treating this area requires that a knowledgeable person drill through the slab and
pressure-inject the poison into key areas.
Orkin and Terminix charge more (sometimes a lot more) and probably won't do any better job
than a competent local independent. But, if things really go wrong, their warranty response is
likely to be MUCH better. Pest control, particularly termite control--like politics and used cars--has historically been a shady business, so you should take care when selecting a local, independent
termiter. Some of the links I give at the end of this article try to help guide you in this selection,
but it's not the way I do the selection, so I can't say how well their suggestions work.
With a whole house treatment you should get a unconditional 1-year guarantee against
reinfestation. You may also be asked to sign-up for an annual maintenance contract. Annual
maintenance ordinarily means you pay a fixed annual fee for the company to treat any spots of re-entry and to come out once a year to inspect for signs of such a re-entry. Years ago, because the
chemicals were so effective, this annual maintenance agreement was mostly a ripoff--worse than
service contracts for electronic gadgets today. But, with the less effective termiticides used now,
you may well need some spot treatments from time-to-time over the 5+ year life of the main
treatment. Because of this increased need to retreat, some exterminators no longer offer an
extended maintenance contract. If you want it, be certain of the terms offered by the company
you select--get a copy of their agreement and read the fine print.
Here's what I do
I have a monolithic slab, which provides the best termite resistance. It's important to be able to
inspect for termites yourself. There is at least 6 inches of exposed slab all around my house, so
it's easy to inspect for mud tubes.
I find an independent with a good reputation and a low price (you can bargain with an
independent). I contract with him for the whole house treatment. I make it part of the contract
that the initial guarantee extends past the next swarming season that's at least 3 months away.
That is, he might have to give a 15 month initial warranty. Then I get an option to accept the
annual maintenance contract at the end of the initial warranty, with the option to continue it on a
year-to-year basis. There's no reason you should have to contract for the maintenance before it is
to begin. If serious problems develop in the year I take up my option to extend the warranty, if
not, I begin my own treatment.
In Texas an individual can buy the same chemicals professionals use. I've not seen professional use termiticides at home centers like Home Depot. Look in the yellow pages under 'Pest Control Supplies' or 'Pest Control Equipment & Supplies.' I have been told in some states they are only sold to licensed exterminators. These are the principal termiticides use by pest control operators, Dragnet® FT, Premise (a little newer), Termidor (even newer) and Tribute (I've never known anyone to use Tribute.) Termidor claims to also have a colony killing effect.
One may work better than another in some parts of the country or with different kinds of soil. I'm not sure whether this is true or an old exterminators' tale. I selected mine by asking Terminix and Orkin what they use. If I were having it today I'd choose Termidor. The positive reports for it continue to mount up.
From what I've been able
to learn, inaccessible areas, like under the slab, are not likely to have their
protection disrupted, so if they are good for longer, and they'll probably
continue to hold for the life of the stuff. Areas exposed to gardening,
rain, sunlight, animals, etc are less secure, but easy to self-treat. I check
the slab for mud tubes quarterly. If any appear, I saturate them with wasp &
hornet spray (any pesticide may work), then wait a few days and brush the tubes
away. I then watch the area for a week or so. The hornet spray usually does it.
If another tube appears I trench about 10 feet on either side of breach and
apply the poison (The last times I had to do this I used Dursban TC which is
banned now.) according to the package instructions. I have never seen them come back to
an area treated this way again.
Of Colony Killers, Baits & Sentricon