What’s bugging you? Keep termites from eating away at your house

Hilary Matheson

Spring is the season for rebirth, growth and termites. They survive on cellulose – namely dead wood. It's a process beneficial to decomposition in forests, but one that makes for an expensive meal on a homeowner’s tab.

Eastern subterranean termites are one of the most common and widely distributed types of termites in the U.S. These social insects live in colonies and live underground in warm, moist soil. To travel from place to place, they build mud tunnels.

When a termite colony is well established, swarming will occur during the day. Swarming occurs in late February through the spring months. Winged termites will fly to mate and establish new colony, said Phil Nixon, entomologist for the University of Illinois Extension.

“Hundreds or thousands of winged insects will be flying all over the place and at your windowsills,” he said.

Not an ant

Swarming termites look similar to winged ants. They both swarm around the same time, said Brian Mitchell, branch manager of Freeport Pest Control.

He said one way to distinguish between the termite and ant are their antennae. Termites have straight antennae. Ants have crooked or elbowed antennae. Nixon added that ants have pinched-in waists or an hourglass shape, while termites antennae remain straight.

Damage control

Nixon and Mitchell said termites are one of the few insects in the world that can process and digest wood because of a special digestive enzyme.

Nixon said Eastern Subterranean termites tend to go after hardwoods. Wood in newer homes is often treated to resist termites. Although termites do not eat plastic, they can chew through it if necessary. This includes PVC piping and vinyl siding.

“They’re pretty good at putting holes in (the) bottom of swimming pool liners,” Nixon said.

To look for damage, check windowsills by pressing down on the wood. It is not uncommon for some of the earliest and heaviest damage to be in the roof.

“Sometimes the damage will be a little piece of a window, other times the whole side of a house,” Nixon said.

Mitchell recommends checking the basement and foundation for the mud tunnels, which are about the width of a piece of straw or a pencil.

“You’re going to look for the exit holes and waffling of wood,” Mitchell said. “Best thing anybody can do is go in the basement look at the floor joists, and the floorboards, and headers and sill plates.”

A homeowner likely will discover damage before they find the insects. Taking care of a termite infestation is a job best left to the professionals, Nixon said.

Prevention

There are preventative measures to take around the house. Many of these measures are in modern building codes, Nixon said.

Since termites like high-moisture areas, residents should make sure water flows away from the house – that gutters are unclogged, attics are properly ventilated and the yard slopes away from the foundation. The foundation around the house also should be exposed several inches from where the soil touches.

“This reduces the ability for them to get underneath,” he said. “The several inches of foundation that you see around a house the termites then have to build a tunnel to get up into the house. They can’t just go straight from ground into wood.

“Many times people think that they’ll eliminate those safety precautions and put soil next to their house or put siding all the way to the ground. Those people are just asking for termite problems,” Nixon said.

People also should keep woodpiles away from a house. The practice of insulating the basement with Styrofoam under the soil is not advisable, he said, because unless the Styrofoam is treated to resist termites, they will tunnel through it and will be shielded from poisons or chemicals.

Treatment

For termite control, Mitchell said there are different ways to treat the problem. The common method is for an exterminator to dig a trench by the foundation and fill it with chemical products, essentially forming a “curtain” underneath the soil.

“The termites, they go through the stuff they get it on them, in them, and then they go back to the colony and it kills them. It lasts for 10 years and basically stays where it’s put,” he said.

After treatment, bait stations are usually put out to ensure the colony’s death.

Nixon said treatment by professionals can range anywhere from $1,500 to $2,500.

The Journal-Standard