7 Signs You Might Have a Termite Infestation

As small as these insects are, they can make an awfully big mess. Know what to look for and what to do if you discover any of these signs of termites.

It can be hard to envision a million of anything, so entomologist Doug Webb has a helpful image. Imagine a million metal BBs covering the floor of the room you’re in. You couldn’t walk around without stepping on any. Now realize a termite colony can have one or two million members, all under your house. It’s a chilling picture.

“One termite can’t do significant damage,” says Webb, who works for pest-control company Terminix International. “But thousands can.”

The average termite damage repair costs thousands of dollars, according to Terminix. And if you need more fuel for your nightmares, Webb says he has seen some homes so destroyed by the little pests they had to be completely rebuilt.

Those are extreme cases, of course, though it doesn’t hurt to be vigilant. Even if you’ve never seen a termite, these tips will help you know what to look for, and what it may mean for your home.

What Is a Termite Infestation?

Termites are small whitish insects, about a quarter of an inch long. The eastern subterranean termite is most common in North America. While termites cause more of a problem in the South, Webb says they can be found in every state of the U.S. except Alaska — yes, they can survive northern winters in some places. “They just go deeper than the freeze line,” Webb says.

Like ants, most termites are workers, foraging constantly for anything containing cellulose to feed the colony and keep the queen producing eggs. Wood is mostly made of cellulose, so to a termite, your home looks like a tasty buffet. And try swallowing this news: Webb says a queen termite can live up to 30 years.

Humans co-exist with termites all the time, according to Webb. In forests, termites actually serve an important purpose, breaking down dead trees and helping return them to the soil. But if the colony finds its way into your home and sets up shop, that’s an infestation, and you’ll need to deal with it.

How To Know If You Have a Termite Infestation

Termites are blind but they’re always looking for food. “They just bump into things,” Webb says. If one bumps into your house, finds a crack and tastes the delicious wood, they may bring it back to the colony, leaving a little trail others can follow. They’re pros at staying hidden, Webb says, so it may be tough to know they’ve arrived. Here are some signs.

Mud Tubes

Some of the most common indicators, Webb says, are mud tubes. Termites use their saliva to glue these tunnels together for travel. Homeowners may see the pencil-width mud tubes spreading out like veins on their home’s foundation.

Termite Mud Tube zimmytws/Getty Images

Swarmers

You may spot swarmers, winged adult termites that fly away in groups. If you see a swarm coming out of or near your home, “that’s a big indicator,” Webb says.

Discarded Termite Wings

Swarmers are not good flyers; they often shed their wings and crawl away. A pile of discarded wings is another clue that termites are present.

Termite Droppings and Other Signs

While termites do leave sawdust-like droppings, Webb says the common eastern subterranean termites leave their droppings inside of wood, where you’re unlikely to see them.

But other signs of termites include wood that sounds hollow when tapped, soft wood that’s easily probed with a knife or screwdriver, and “a thin gritty gray-brown film on the surface of damaged material,” according to the North Carolina State Extension Service.

What To Do if Termites Are Damaging Your Home

If you discover termite damage, don’t panic. Call a professional ASAP for an estimate to assess the damage.

“I’m not saying a do-it-yourself (person) couldn’t do it,” Webb says. But termite extermination is expensive, complicated and requires some fairly heavy-duty equipment, including a sprayer capable of handling hundreds of gallons of liquid treatment.

Termites only need one small crack to get inside, and if you miss even one the problem may persist. If you hire a professional, ask about their guarantees if the termites show up again; different companies make different promises. Generally, the entire home will need to be treated. If not, termites will just move to another spot.

Will Termites Go Away on Their Own?

In a word, no. Would you leave a free, all-you-can-eat buffet, if you were a termite? Once the little buggers have arrived, “they’re going to keep feeding,” Webb says. A standard home could sustain them for as long as four years, he says.

And you may not see them in the process. Termites are used to hiding from birds and other predators, Webb says, and they don’t even like to interact with other insects.

Make Your Home Less Enticing to Termites

There are ways to prevent a termite infestation before it happens, Webb says.

Make sure there is no wood-to-ground contact in your yard. If you have wood steps, a concrete block at the bottom of the steps may confuse the termites enough to keep them from climbing to wooden steps.

If you’re building a deck, Webb suggests pressure-treated wood, which is more resistant to termites though not termite-proof.

And of course, follow good home maintenance and building procedures. Moisture-damaged wood is more appealing to termites, so keep an eye out for leaking gutters and other moisture problems.