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How Harmful Are Termites?
Subterranean termites most commonly live in the soil where they can avoid temperature extremes and obtain the moisture essential to their existence. Rather than building a discreet nest like their tropical cousins, subterranean termites construct numerous scattered nursery areas where reproductives are found together with piles of eggs and young termites. These nursery areas can be in buried stumps, logs, dead roots or pieces of lumber left in the backfill after building construction. Nursery areas can also be found in the wood of structures. These areas can be as far down as 3 to 6 m below ground level. Because subterranean termites can get moisture from the soil, they can attack any dry wood or other source of cellulose within foraging distance of the colony. Besides wood structures, subterranean termites will attack untreated fence posts and attached boards, utility poles, and any other food sources such as cardboard, paper, fiberboard in, on, or close to the ground. They prefer to feed on the softer spring growth of infested wood, leaving the harder summer wood and a paper-thin outer shell of wood. Termite nursery areas located under sub-floors or concrete slabs near furnaces, water heaters or other sources of heat can remain active during the winter.
Termites are social insects which means they rely upon each individual in the colony for survival. Termites need cellulose (typically wood) moisture and warmth to survive. A colony consists of a Queen, King, Soldiers, Workers and Reproductives. Typical colonies contain around 250,000 workers although studies have found colonies with over 1 million workers. New colonies are formed when winged reproductive females and males emerge from a mature colony (four to five years old) and take flight. These termites are commonly called swarmers. After a short flight the swarmer returns to the ground, drops it's wings and searches for a mate, preferably from a different parent colony. When mates are found the termites dig a chamber and close the opening. After mating the queen lays typically lays less than fifty eggs the first season. The new workers that hatch enlarge the chambers and collect cellulose for food. The queen's only job from that point forward is to lay eggs that hatch after incubation of 50-60 days. She may live up to 25 years.
Worker termites are the most common caste found when examining a colony. Workers probe blindly through the soil looking for cellulose materials. In nature, termites help maintain our forests but when probing termites find your home their benefits seem less worthwhile. Termite workers eat cellulose material and exchange the food and nutrients by mouth (called trophallaxis) with colony members including the King and Queen. Termite workers also groom each other resulting in the transfer of soil, wood particles, fungal spores, and chemical pheromones that maintain the social organization within the colony. Subterranean termites nest underground because they need protection from light and dry air. When workers need to cross substrates such as a concrete slab they will construct mud tubes from the soil. Workers can build as much as 1" of tube in an hour using soil particles and salivary secretions. Termites will repair broken tubes quickly if the tube is being used. Mud tubes are a good indication of a termite problem. Destroying the tubes will not eliminate the infestation.
What Do Termites Attack
Termites feed on products containing cellulose. Termite jaws are hard allowing them to shear off micro particles of wood one piece at a time. While termites are very beneficial to our environment, they are serious problem for structures. Estimates vary but it is clear that termites cause millions of dollars in damage to structures every year.
What Termites Eat
- structural beams
- wood paneling
- wood flooring
- sheet rock
- paper products
Termites can also attack carpeting, books, furniture, artwork and any type of paper documents.
A colony consisting of 250,000 workers can consume approximately 1 cubic food of wood or up to 20 linear feet of a 2x4 piece of wood in one year under certain conditions. Termites typically will not leave a home once they have infested it.
Termite reproductives form new colonies through "swarming". The swarming termites develop during winter months. Usually in the spring during warm and humid weather, worker termites will build special tubes called "swarming castles" and prod the swarmers out for mating. Swarming typically last for around 30 minutes. Although these reproductive termites are a nuisance, they are actually doing homeowners a favor. In many cases, swarming termites are the first signs that a home is infested with termites. Because termites can destroy wood completely out of our sight year round, these winged termites are an important signal. Swarmers do not cause any damage. Their purpose is to start new colonies. Indoor swarmers will die within a few hours therefore we do not recommend the use of pesticides. You should wait until they die, then you can sweep or vacuum them up. Very seldom are indoor swarmers successful in starting a new colony (termites must find sufficient moisture inside the structure).
Avoid A Big Mistake...
Sometimes termites swarm inside your home just briefly, die and then you do not see them again. Some people make the mistake of thinking the termites went away or maybe the pesticide they sprayed where the swarmers were emerging solved the problem. Sorry to say it is not that easy. Swarmers only emerge briefly during the right environmental (temperature, light and moisture) conditions. You may not see them again until the next year. However, the worker termites in the colony will still be feeding on your home if they are present like the swarmers suggest.
Termite or Ant ?
Each year exterminators receive hundreds of calls in the spring and fall from people who are concerned they have termites swarming. In some cases the winged culprit is a swarming ant. The differences between a winged ant and a swarming termite are shown below.
The bodies of termite swarmers are black while ant swarmers may be brown, black or red. Termite swarmers are typically much smaller than ant swarmers and have a much shorter life span out of the soil. In addition, termite swarmers have straight antennae, no constriction at the waist and both pairs of wings are equal in size. Swarmers do not destroy wood and cause no problems outside the home. Inside, swarmers are certainly a nuisance but more importantly, they are alerting you to a potential termite problem.
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