How to Inspect for Termites

If you’re like most homeowners, you want to learn how to identify and prevent wood destroying insects such as termites to prevent damage to your property, which can result in costly repairs.  It is estimated that upwards of 80% of Southern California homes are infested with termites.  In learning how to identify evidence of a termite infestation, it is important to understand that there are two different species of termites commonly associated with Southern California and the San Diego region, namely subterranean termites and drywood termites.

Subterranean Termites

As the name implies, subterranean termites live in the ground.  The subterranean termite nest may be located up to 20’ deep in the ground.  Subterranean termites may infest a home while they are out foraging for food.  The termite colony is comprised of a caste system, with different members in the colony performing different roles.  These termite roles include soldier, worker, swarmer, and queen.

Once a termite colony reaches a certain size, swarmer termites are produced with the purpose of going out to start new colonies.  This ensures the continuity of the species.  These swarmer termites can often be our first sign of an infestation.  Swarmer termites can be sometimes mistaken for flying ants.  In order to avoid this, it is important to identify the differences between the two.  Firstly, ants will have a segmented body whereas a swarming termite will have cigar shaped body that is continuous.  Another difference is in the antennae, ants have an elbow in their antennae while termites have straight antennae. Subterranean termites are generally black in color when they are swarming.  The swarms can be quite large, number in the thousands.  Again, this usually represents a substantial colony has been established and a licensed pest control company should be contacted for consultation.

Another sign of subterranean termites is something referred to as “mud tubes.”  It should be noted that subterranean termites are attracted to moisture and damper soils.  It is with this moist soil that the termites will often construct tunnels made from mud for the purposes of foraging for food.  Termite workers have a translucent body and the mud helps provide shelter and protection for the termites.  The mud tube resembles a thin shoe lose and can often be seen rising vertically up a foundation wall or pier.  Interior evidence can include signs of mud coming through the drywall.  Mud tubes can also be constructed in a fashion where they are hanging down vertically from joist or beams.  These mud tubes should not be disturbed as this can cause them to move to another area of the home where they may not be detectible until further damage has been done.  Instead, contact your local pest control company for treatment options.

Drywood Termites

Unlike subterranean termites, drywood termites live directly in the piece of dry and sound wood that they are infesting.  Drywood termites establish their entire colony within the wood that they consume.  This is usually done from the inside out so that by the time evidence can be observed, there may already be hidden damage involved.  Since the termites live inside the piece of wood that they inhabit, they find themselves in need of something to do with their fecal excrement.  In an attempt to clear some of the of the waste, the termites will bore a “kick out” hole where they will drop their waste which is in the form of a “pellet.”  These pellets are 6 sized and grainy.  The pellets get their shape due to the termite extracting all the moisture and nutrients from the wood it has digested and is passing what is leftover.  Don’t be too grossed out, it’s just wood, or what’s left over any ways.  We may come across piles of what looks like sand which is actually termite droppings.  Despite common belief, the color of the pellets provides no indication as to whether or not the evidence is old or new.  The termite droppings do not change color or consistency with time.

Just like subterranean termites, drywood termites also operate on a caste system.  The roles include soldier, swarmer, worker, queen.  As with the subterranean termites, once the drywood termite colony reaches a certain size, it will release swarmer termites to go out and establish new colonies.  This can often result in multiple areas of the same house getting infested exponentially as colonies expand and swarm.  Infestation can initially occur as a swarmer flutters into an attic or an unfinished garage through a vent.  Cracks in the exterior finish and eaves are a common point of infestation as well.

Drywood swarmer termites have a different look than subterranean swarmer termites.  The drywood swarmers have a red head vs. the black body and head that the subterranean termites possess.  That is the major difference, there are also some subtle differences in the wing sizes but the difference in head color will be the most telling.  In either case, contact your local pest control company for help in eradicating these pests.

Where to look

When performing a termite inspection on your home, you’ll want to be sure to look high and low.  Typically, your subterranean termite evidence will be low, while your drywood termite evidence is higher up.  As you walk around the outside of your home, be sure to scan around the perimeter of the foundation for any evidence of mud tubes.  Also be on the lookout for any termite pellets that may accumulated from the eaves above.  Use a painter’s pole or a ski pole to gently tap the eaves and other exposed wood areas around the perimeter of your home.  This is the common method for inspecting for drywood termite evidence. Be sure to wear safety glasses, sometimes pellets or wood debris can fall down and present a danger to the eyes.  You don’t have to hit it hard, just a gentle tap.  Sometimes you will observe that the paint has bubbled or is wavy looking over an area that has been eaten away by the termites as they will often stop just short of the paint.  Also look for anything that might be conducive to attracting termites, such as a firewood pile stored next to the house or a leaky hose bib.  You will want to remedy anything that could attract termites, which is anything containing cellulose:  wood, paper, yard waste, etc.

On the interior inspection, you’ll want to pay close attention to window sills.  If you find a pile of pellets, look directly above it.  The pellets usually drop in a straight path from the source or “kick out” hole.  Scan the drywall for signs of a kick out hole or mud.  Scan the perimeter of the garage foundation for any signs of mud tubes or drywood termite pellets.  If any evidence is found or for a full inspection which would include an evaluation of the crawl space and attic, consult a licensed pest control company.  A licensed pest control company will have the necessary personal safety equipment and is trained to enter the crawlspace and attic.

I recommend using a licensed pest control company to conduct a full inspection and provide treatment options.  If caught early enough, treatment can often be localized to location of the evidence.  There are also various preventative options on the market, everything from chemicals to bait stations.  I would discourage homeowners from trying to take matters into their own hands.  Your local pest control company is licensed and trained in the handling and application of various pesticides and methods.  Trust in their knowledge and have peace of mind that you are protecting your investment.