Termite Infestations, Damage and Treatment Options
by Jody Green, Extension Educator
Termites are cryptic, soil-dwelling insects requiring high moisture, temperature and humidity to survive. Subterranean termites, like the ones we have in Nebraska, live in decentralized nests underground, close to a food source, connected by tunnels and mud tubes. In natural ecosystems, termites are beneficial creatures, breaking down cellulose material such as decaying plant material, decomposing trees and leaf litter. Termites become a problem in urban areas, because our building materials and structures are constructed of wood products and are, therefore, susceptible to termite damage.
There are three main castes in a subterranean termite colony: workers, soldiers and reproductives (Read Termite Infestations).
Worker termites are approximately 1/8” long, creamy-white and soft-bodied, with no eyes and beadlike antennae. Like their name implies, workers do all the work and they are most numerous in the colony. They forage for food, feed and groom other castes and incorporate wood debris, saliva and fecal material to construct, maintain and repair the tunnels and mud tubes in which to travel.
Soldier termites are slightly larger than workers, creamy-white, soft-bodied, with enlarged, hardened, rectangular head capsules bearing large, developed mandibles. Soldiers typically make up less than three percent of the colony. They protect the colony from predators and defend the nest. They do not have eyes and cannot feed themselves so rely on workers for nourishment.
Termites must maintain a certain level of moisture to maintain colony function. The constant connection with the soil allows them to transfer moisture from the ground to their colonies. Without the source of moisture, their soft-bodies would desiccate. They can detect air movement with the sensory hairs on their bodies. Termites are most active in the warmer months, but in heated buildings can continue to be active and feeding year round. Infestations
People are alerted to termite infestation during a home renovation or repair. They can feed for years without detection by entering buildings unnoticed through cracks in the slab or foundation. They can travel unseen in the soil, voids or in mud tubes. Just because you have termites on your property does not mean your house is at high risk for termite feeding and damage. Termites forage in a radial pattern (much like a wheel), so explorations appear random, but have a greater chance of bumping into a food source. Termites will be attracted to and concentrate feeding where conducive conditions exist in and around the structure.
Conducive conditions include wood soil contact (i.e. storing firewood on the ground next to the house, landscape timbers), moisture problems (i.e. leaky pipes, condensation, damaged windows, flat roof, faulty skylights), vegetation along outside perimeter (i.e. ivy, high mulch), dirt-filled porches, improper grade, poor drainage (i.e. downspouts, gutters, spigots), high humidity in crawlspaces and structural damage due to wind or rain.
The extent of the damage will depend on the size of the colony and the duration of feeding. Termites consume the softer springwood and leave the harder summerwood, leaving mud frass (excrement) packed in the galleries in place of wood. Other signs of damage include mud or shelter tubes, dips or holes in hardwood floors and mud spots, bubbles or peeling paint on the walls. If the infestation is active, the moisture level will be above 20 percent and you may see live termites with some probing.
If you have any questions with regards to whether or not you have a termite infestation, bring (or take a photo and send) specimens or damage samples to the extension office (learn how to take a photo or collect a sample here). Once it is confirmed you have a termite infestation, a trained and certified termite professional is recommended.
There are many pest management companies that perform termite work. Deal with reliable firms, consult the Better Business Bureau, check for liability insurance, ask for references and comparison shop. Different types of treatments will vary in cost and liquid treatments (i.e. trench and rod, sub-slab injection, foam voids) differ greatly from baiting systems. Each company should write an inspection report complete with a detailed map, which includes dimensions of the structure, areas of active infestation, location of damage, where, how, and with what product the structure will be treated.
Reference to commercial products or trade names is made with the understanding that no discrimination is intended and no endorsement by the University of Nebraska–Lincoln is implied. The information on this Web site is valid for residents of southeastern Nebraska. It may or may not apply in your area. If you live outside southeastern Nebraska, visit your local Extension office