There are approximately 220 termite species worldwide; 45 are native to the United States. This article examines the most common of species in Northwest Indiana, the eastern subterranean termite. This termite has an economical effect on the United States by causing billions of dollars’ worth of damage annually.
Subterranean termite colonies nest in the soil, usually near a food source. Termite colonies grow slowly, taking 5 or more years to reach 50,000. In favorable conditions, the colony can reach several hundred thousand individuals in a decade.
Termite colonies require specific conditions to expand and prosper. The success of the termite colony relies on the soil condition and food availability. In addition, the optimal conditions for the survival of a colony include protection from heat and predators.
Termites require moisture to avoid the desiccating effects of air, so humidity in their tunnels and galleries must remain high. Low moisture hinders foraging (hunting for food), reproduction, and survival. Soil is the source of termite gut microorganisms essential to their digestion of cellulose (wood) and to colony health.
Termites are social insects that are developed through a caste system of organization, which means they divide the labor of the colony up between different types of individuals. There are three different castes: “Workers,” “Soldiers,” and “Reproductive’s.” Workers, which make up the greatest number of termites, are creamy- white, soft- bodied males and females. They are blind, wingless, and sterile. They have hardened mouthparts which are designed for chewing. The workers forage for food, build tunnels and shelter tubes, maintain the colonies, and feed and groom other colony members. Worker termites feed the colony members through a process called trophallaxis. During this process they regurgitate partially digested food and pass it along to their mates.
Soldiers have enlarged, yellow-brown heads with two mandibles designed to crush or puncture the bodies of insect competitors such as ants. Soldiers are wingless, soft-bodied, and blind, and must be fed by the workers. They comprise a very small part of the colony. Essentially, the soldiers are present to protect the colony from predators.
There are two types of reproductives: primary and secondary. Primary reproductives, called alates, are responsible for building new colonies during the swarming season. They are often mistaken for flying ants when discovered by people. They have translucent wings and are approximately 3/8 inch long. The difference between the termite swarmer and the flying ant is the waist size. The flying ant has a skinny waist and the termite is one solid body. Also, the flying ant has two bent antennae and the termites are straight and beaded.
Swarming occurs in Spring, mostly during March through May. Swarming occurs on warm days after rainstorms and usually only takes place once a year. The secondary form of reproductive termite is the king and queen. During the swarming process the king and queen, both underground in the colony, are reproducing. A king and queen can live for up to 10 years depending on soil conditions and can produce 100,000 termites in a matter of 5-10 years.
Termites build mud shelter tubes on the side of your foundation wall for protection and travel. They use this tube to travel from their colony into your home. Once inside the home they begin feasting on the wood, also known as your structure. These termites take the eaten wood back to their colonies and share it with their family through the regurgitation process. The shelter tubes they build are often mistaken for mud daubers nest. Termites will also enter your home through cracks in a concrete block foundation, under a front concrete stoop, between a void (brick veneer or stone facing), or in the crawl space. Termites can eat a linear foot of wood in no time at all and affect the integrity of your structure.
There are several things a homeowner can do to prevent the invasion of termites. First, make sure all of your gutters are clean and downspout extensions are working properly. This may seem trivial to the homeowner but is very important. The downspout extensions direct the rain water away from the perimeter of your home. Remember, termites love wet soil conditions and need that moisture to survive and prosper. Always maintain a positive grade (sloping ground) away from your home to prevent water from sitting around your foundation. Maintaining dry soil around your home will present unfavorable conditions for termites and keep your basement dry. Always keep an eye out for those mud shelter tubes running up your foundation wall. The termites use the shelter tubes for protection and traveling back and forth from their colony to your structure.
Never build your flower beds up too high and in contact with the siding. This will cause you to lose sight of the concrete foundation wall and allow termite’s protection and entry into your home. Avoid inviting termites into your home by removing wood landscape timbers from the ground, wood debris from crawl spaces, and wood piles from alongside your home. Any type of wood to earth contact will cause wood rot and is very inviting for termites.
Termites leave piles of wood shavings called “frass” behind after infiltration. Mostly, frass can be found along the wood sill around the inside of your garage perimeter. The termites enter your home where the wood meets the concrete foundation, or sill plate. Wood frass and dead termite body parts are evidence of infestation.
Keeping the perimeter of your home dry, removing wood from contact with soil, watching for mud tubes on your foundation wall, locating piles of frass that contain dead body parts, and having an understanding of how these wood destroying insects operate, will equip you with the ability to identify, locate, and prevent termites from invading and infesting your home.