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Termites and Your Home

By : John Martino | In : general,Home Inspections

Researchers have traditionally thought termites Home Inspector move randomly in the soil. This was because it was virtually impossible to see how these insects actually travel in the soil. But recent studies have shown that termites move in very predictable ways. It has been discovered that their movement is more efficient then being purely random. As termites travel away from the colony they construct branching tunnels in a radial pattern similar to the spokes in a bicycle tire.

This pattern divides and then subdivides the search areas so the termites cover it as completely as possible. Termites probably don’t detect wood from great distances because the soil environment doesn’t allow chemical cues to travel very far. It is believed that termites find food basically by running into it during their foraging and searching activity.

Termites respond to environmental cues like temperature and moisture. During the winter they move down into the soil because they cannot cross the frost barrier. During dry periods termites move deeper into the soil or seek artificially moist areas an example of this is would be a well watered garden environment. During the summer termites can be found in the upper soil levels. Once termites find food they will stop and feed. Most termites will be sent to the food rich area. Marginal food resources may be abandoned although once they have a connection with a food source they will be able to find the food again if needed. During the winter some food resources will be abandoned because of cold conditions, but feeding may resume the following spring or summer. Seasonal feeding is why inspections during the winter are not as likely to find live termites as if the inspection was done in the spring or the summer.

The main nutritional ingredient in the food termites eat is cellulose. Cellulose is a hard structural component of wood and other plant materials. Termites will feed on nearly any source of cellulose including wood, roots, twigs, mulch, paper, cardboard, and fabrics. Subterranean termites tend to prefer softer woods over hardwood but no one treated wood is completely resistant to termite attack. Termites typically eat the softer springwood and leave the harder summer wood which results in the lumber being hollowed out between the growth rings. Termites are most attracted to would partially decomposed by fungus. Studies have shown they thrive on decaying wood. Wood that is in the soil or has been saturated with water is much more suitable for termites then dry structural wood. Some types of wood are more resistant to termites because of naturally occurring substances found in the wood, however during the weathering process the repellent substances lose their repellent qualities. Even though termites feed on cellulose, they can damage non-cellulose material including plaster and drywall. Stucco, plastics, and rubber can also be damaged by termites.

As home inspectors we are primarily looking for two things live termites and termite activity. Live termites are sometimes spotted outdoors when soil is disturbed around wood and touches the soil. Live termites are also sometimes seen during remodeling activities or if their termite mud tubes are disturbed. The other time That live termites can be seen is during swarming.

One of the most interesting things about termites is that at certain times of the year termite colonies swarm. The winged adults flyaway to form their own colonies, swarming usually occurs during the daytime and is simply natures way of reminding you that termites are nearby these swarmers likely came from a nearby underground nest. If most of the insects are found outdoors then the nest is likely somewhere in your yard, possibly near a rotting tree stump or landscaping timbers. If you find most of this warmers indoors then you quite likely have an infestation in or under your house. Most of these swarmers simply die off if they cannot escape from the home. They may be attracted to light and be found on windowsills or another open areas. Quite often you will only find dead insects or just their wings. Destroying the termites warmers will not fix the existing termite problem. Destroying the swarmers does eliminate the nuisance problem at present but it does not provide any protection from further termite activity that may be causing serious damage to your home Protecting your home or business from termites requires a proper soil treatment with a liquid insecticide or the installation of a bating system.

Termites build mud tunnels when moving from the soil to areas above the grade. Mud tubes are constructed by worker termites. These tubes are an obvious indication that there is termite activity in a given area. These tunes will be evident anywhere there is a connection between the termite colony in the ground and any wood food source. The tubes can be constructed on the surface of concrete, metal, wood, plaster, brick or almost any other material. They can hide inside cracks in concrete or wood, inside building materials such as insulating materials and wooden supports or in between floor voids.

There are a couple of types of shelter tubes. Utility tubes are often very wide they carry hundreds to thousands of termites daily. Exploratory tubes are usually only about two termite widths across. These tubes are constructed to facilitate finding food sources. These tubes have been seen traveling 15 feet or more above ground. Exploratory tubes can also be built from the food source down to the soil. Giving the tubes and almost stalactite appearance.

Termites can damage softwood and hardwood lumber products, masonite paneling, composition siding and other construction materials within the home. They can also damage such cellulose materials as books, paper, cardboard, wallpaper and the paper covering on drywall. As the termites eat the wood they replace the eaten wood with soil. Wood is rarely completely eaten and the size and shape of the wood usually remains. Usually they eat about 30 to 40% of the total volume. Termite damage is easily distinguished from other insect damage or rot.

Carpenter ant damage is distinctly different from termite damaged wood. Occupied galleries are kept very clean resulting in the surface having an almost polished look. These ants prefer to infest wood that is moist and rotting and will sometimes use wood that has been hollowed out by termites. They put sawdust and other the breeze out of their galleries often resulting in a cone shaped pile accumulating just below the nest entrance. Carpenter ants nest in wood they do not consume it.

Many species of ants also produce winged adults and take on the appearance of termites. Be careful not to confuse the winged ant with the termite. Termites and ants and also swarm at the same time of the year which also adds to the confusion. There are several key differences in the appearance of these two insects. Termite workers are white or grayish whereas ants are darker in color. Swarming termites are often black in color. Termites have straight antenna, ants have elbowed antenna. Ants have a constricted waist where the thorax and abdomen are connected, termites have an abdomen that is broadly joined at the thorax. Winged ants have four wings the first pair larger than the hind wings. Winged termites have two pairs of wings equal in size and appearance. Even though the two species are similar in appearance and live in the soil ants and termites are enemies because many ant species are predators of termites.

Having a wood destroying insect inspection is a very important piece of having a thorough and complete home inspection. Make sure to ask for a WDI inspection while speaking to your home inspector. Most banks will also require a WDI inspection to be performed before they will issue a mortgage. Good luck and happy termite hunting.

John Martino (64 Posts)

LookSmart Home Inspections, LLC is owned and operated by John Martino. He has successfully performed over 3000 inspections for clients throughout northern and central NJ and has an exemplary track record of customer satisfaction. Mr. Martino completed a 300-hour approved NJ Home Inspector training program and was mentored by one of the most respected names in NJ home inspections. He continues to attend over 30 hours of continuing education classes each year.


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Buying a house is one of life’s biggest decisions. Before you close, you’ll want a professional inspection of the house to ascertain its true condition. John Martino is a formally trained New Jersey home inspector and member of the American Society of Home Inspectors...ReadMore