There’s no debating the fact that bed bugs have the limelight. A review of your pest control expenses may be shocking—bed bugs are taking up both our attention and our budgets. Money is limited, but the implications of not controlling all pests are not.
My weekly news alert on public housing always has stories about sales, acquisitions, new construction, major renovation, and improving the condition of PHA properties. This week’s headlines included “Public-housing complex gets $2M makeover” and “Des Moines studies whether to sell Royal View public housing.”
What does all this building stuff have to do with IPM? Lots. New construction and major renovation is a great opportunity for setting your pest control program up for sustained success. This week I want to talk about termites.
It’s spring, the time when some types of termites swarm. Although a swarm (which I’ll get to) may alert you do an urgent need for termite control, I’d rather you focus on termites before you see the winged ones take flight. The termite is a formidable opponent in every state except Alaska. You will need to consult a pest management professional when doing battle. I assure you I don’t get commission from the pest control industry…it’s just that termites are tough to manage and it takes years of experience (and often a pesticide applicator’s license) to stay on top of the constant threat.
What’s a termite? Although they look alike to the untrained eye, termites and ants aren’t too closely related. Termites are actually more closely related to cockroaches! Like roaches, the baby “nymph” termites look like smaller versions of the adult…well, some of the adults.
The easiest ways to tell the two winged insects apart is ants have a constricted waist and termites don't. If you find ones with wings, termites have 2 pairs of wings that are about the same size. Ants' front pair is larger than their hind.
Termites are social insects—they live in colonies and divvy up the chores between the different castes. Termite biology and behavior is complex and very cool—there’s some shape shifting involved and some termites will have multiple careers during their relatively long (2-10 year) life. Here’s what it takes to run a subterranean termite colony:
- Breaking ground, getting food, raising the kids, and housekeeping: workers and older nymphs do all these. Workers are light colored and at first glance may look like maggots. They’re pretty cute and defenseless—they can dry out easily which is why they like to stay under cover in nice moist mud tubes.
- Protecting the home front: Termites, like most social insects, depend on strength in numbers. Some termite babies grow up to be soldiers—big-headed adults with jaws for fighting. They protect the colony from invaders.
- Makin’ babies: A queen who is accompanied by a faithful king makes many of the eggs produced in a colony. (Castes, soldiers, workers…I know this is sounding like a lesson in medieval history.) If the colony gets large or the crowned couple die, workers and nymphs become reproductive and pick up the slack.
- Exploring to find new land: These termites are the ones with wings…most of the time. If a colony gets too large and the weather conditions are right, winged “alates” will take flight and drift with the wind to find new suitable habitats. This is a swarm. If a female stumbles upon a nice crack or crevice with some wood, she’ll find herself a winged man and the two become a royal couple—ripping off their wings and excavating a bedchamber in which a new colony will begin. Colonies may also start fresh when exploring workers get isolated from their original colony. A few termites will take one for the team and commit themselves to baby making.
Here’s a diagram, just to emphasize how complex this insect is!
Did anyone catch the phrase “subterranean”? There are many different kinds of termites and about 20 kinds that will damage our stuff in the U.S. Broadly they are grouped depending on where they’re most likely to set up shop.
- Subterranean: mostly located underground, but will tunnel up into structures. They need high humidity, so moisture-damaged wood is particularly susceptible. They build and travel in mud tubes. These cause the most damage in the U.S.
- Dampwood: these termites colonize damp wood—stumps, wood piles, and water damaged wood. They don’t need to contact the soil.
- Drywood: Guess where they live? Drywood termites infest dry wood. They are good at retaining moisture and don’t need water to survive. They too can infest wood that isn’t near the soil.
Because termites are so complex, I’m not going to go into a lot of detail in this post. Signs of termites include the obvious winged swarmers, but they are usually more cryptic— creating mud tubes along cracks, joints and structural guidelines or burrowing under the surface of wood. PMPs know the tricks of the trade for termite inspection—infrared cameras, chemical sensing devices, and a lot of tapping on walls. If you know there are termites in your area, have an inspection or baiting program in place. For more information, see the University of KY's “Termite Control: Answers for Homeowners," Texas A&M’s “How to Select a Termite Control Service," the 2011 Termite Control issue of PCT magazine, and talk to a PMP.
What’s your part in termite control?
Remove potential food and water sources. Termites eat literally any material with cellulose—that’s plant stuff: paper, cardboard, wood, and even cotton. And they like moisture, so any area with a leak, high humidity, or improper drainage compounds the issue. The more termite food there is on your property, the greater your risk. Material that contacts the soil is bad since the subterranean termites can tunnel right up undetected.
Consider the following termite treats:
- Wooden grade stakes, cardboard, and foam board used in construction
- Fences and wooden signs
- Mulch up against the building foundation
- Support beams in crawlspaces or basements
- Dead trees or stumps
And water sources:
- Poor ventilation in attics, crawlspaces, and basements
- Water draining within 2’ of the foundation
- Inadequate vapor barrier coverage under the slab
- Improperly flashed windows, roofs, and chimneys
Your other major role is to keep them out:
- Screen all vents, doors, and windows with 20-mesh screen
- Seal any cracks or crevices on the exterior of buildings
When building new or renovating,
- Inspect wood to ensure you haven’t brought in any termites
- Use pressure treated wood when possible—especially for wood that will be on or near the soil
- Don’t have wood touching soil if you can avoid it—leave at least 6 inches from the soil line
- Use termite-blocking mesh around any utility penetrations
Even if you can’t budget for routine termite control, get a one-time inspection and walk around with the PMP. Ask him lots of questions about termites and your property. I’m sure there will be intricacies of your site that you hadn’t considered. You will learn a lot and be better prepared to inspect for this pest on your own.
Here are a few reasons to call a PMP for termite control today:
- Pre-construction treatment sets up a barrier in the soil that keeps termites from infesting new structures.
- Most sales require a wood destroying insect (WDI) inspection by a trained professional—there are ants, beetles, and fungi that damage wood too.
- The PMP can give input into building design, material choice, and construction site practices that will make the property and building less suitable for termite takeover. If you’re getting LEED certified, there are some IPM points to be had in the design phase.
- PMPs can install bait stations around a property that kill subterranean termites before they reach your foundation.
- It’s good to have a working relationship with a PMP before an urgent need arises. When a resident calls because his home is filled with “ants with wings,” you want to know who to call.
Have fun playing termite CSI…from an entomology standpoint this is a very cool bug!