Termites 101: Everything You Need To Know

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Termites can be the bane of a property owner's existence. Learn how to keep these wood-munchers from eating you out of house and home.

Termites, like ants, are social insects that live in colonies. Dividing community labor between soldiers, workers and reproducers, termites sustain themselves by attacking and ingesting wood.

Because wood is one of the most widely-used building materials, it’s estimated termites damage around 600,000 U.S. structures each year. And because homeowners insurance policies rarely cover termite damage, it’s believed residents in the U.S. spend around $5 billion out of their pockets annually to repair the damage left behind by these invasive and ruinous pests.

To protect your investment from destructive termites, here’s what every homeowner should know.

What Do Termites Look Like?

Often mistaken for ants, you can generally tell the difference between a termite and an ant by their straight waists and antennae, as well as from their white color or translucid exoskeleton. Winged (AKA swarming) termites have four equal-length wings, while ants’ wings are of different lengths.

What Are the Different Types of Termites?

The most common types of termites in North America are:

Subterranean

Considered the most destructive species of termites, they build their nests underground and burrow up into structures, often going undetected until you have a full-blown infestation. This species contains two subgroups: the Eastern Subterranean and Formosan. Both sub-species need to live underground where there is the moisture they need to survive.

Drywood

This species of termites build small colonies inside dry pieces of timber. They eat silently, so they can go undetected in a home’s framing, hardwood floors and furniture for years.

How to Identify Termites

Keep in mind that a termite’s appearance differs depending on the type and species. For example, Drywood worker termites are a creamy color, while soldiers are slightly larger with darker heads. Formosan termites have orange bodies and traditional Subterranean termites are more brownish in color.

Where Do Termites Live?

Of the more than 2,000 species of termites worldwide, about 50 of them can be found in the U.S.

Termites inhabit mostly warmer climates, which is why Alaska is the only state without them. They live in rural and urban environments, and can be found in homes, fences, sheds, garages, firewood and other dead wood.

What Do Termites Eat?

Termites eat wood, wood byproducts (paper, fabric, sawdust, wood chips, etc.) and other dead plants.

According to Pest Strategies Home Expert and CEO Ed Spicer, the gut of a termite contains bacterial protozoa. “These protozoa break down cellulose, a biological compound found in wood, and create fuel from this unlikely resource,” he says. “Because cellulose is found most abundantly in wood and tree roots, termites gravitate toward it.”

Certain woods, like cedar, cypress and redwood, are naturally resistant to termites. Termites won’t bother pressure-treated and composite lumber, either. However, they will crunch through particleboard.

What Are the Signs That You Have Termites?

Termites are good at remaining hidden, consuming wood from the inside. They typically leave the skin of wood untouched, thereby concealing damage from the human eye.

Signs of infestation include:

  • Mud tunnels (about the diameter of a pencil) on the surface of walls;
  • Wood that sounds hollow;
  • Blistering or uneven paint;
  • Discarded wings;
  • Feces droppings that look like sawdust;
  • A swarm.

How To Treat Termites

There are chemical and non-chemical ways to treat termites.

Non-chemical methods

Chemical solutions

Termite Safety and Concerns

Although termites can sting and bite, they aren’t toxic and don’t generally pose a health risk. Those allergic to termites’ saliva or droppings or who suffer from asthma could be affected.

What’s of most concern is the structural damage termites can cause. “Termites are a serious threat to our homes and must be immediately dealt with in the earliest possible stage of infestation,” says Spicer.

Once you determine that termites are present, it’s recommended that you contact a professional exterminator to help get rid of them as soon as possible. Every minute that termites are present is another minute of the destructive gnawing that can cost you thousands of dollars to remedy.

Toni DeBella
Toni DeBella is a freelance travel, lifestyle and digital content writer based in a medieval hill town in central Italy. Her work has been featured in such publications as Fodor's, The Telegraph, Walks of Italy, Italy Magazine, Frommers.com, Touring Bird (via [email protected]) and more. Most recently she authored the 2020 edition of DK Eyewitness Sicily travel guide. When Toni is not roaming around Europe, you'll find her tending her alley-side container garden or honing her clay-court tennis game.