Kentucky Pest News: Zach DeVries and Mike Potter, Entomology Extension Specialists
Termite season has begun in Kentucky! To assist homeowners in addressing this growing problem, this article provides basic information on termite biology and control. That said, this article is intended to be a quick reference guide to answer the most common questions/concerns; for more detailed information please see our Entfacts on termites (Entfact-605, Entfact-604, Entfact-639)
Termites are small, soft-bodied social insects that feed on wood. They are found almost everywhere that wood is present and represent an important component of most ecosystems since they help remove dead wood from forests. That said, termites quickly become a problem when they invade our homes and structures. Termites cause billions of dollars in damage each year, and when identified in homes they should be of concern. Not only can their damage be costly, they can also impact real estate transactions and put people in incredibly stressful situations (what is worse than thousands of unidentified bugs flying around your home!).
Between the months of March and May (depending on temperature and rainfall) is when winged termites (known as “swarmers”) appear in homes. In nature, swarmers serve to disperse and reproduce, but when they emerge indoors, they become trapped and a major nuisance to homeowners. While swarmers found indoors are not a risk to homeowners (they can’t eat wood), they do indicate that an infestation is present.
The presence of swarmers indoors almost always indicates an infestation is present and requires treatment. Additionally, termite swarmers observed emerging from the base of a foundation wall or adjoining structure also warrant further investigation and possible treatment. That said, termites are ubiquitous in residential landscapes, and their presence around the outside of homes is not always cause for concern. Termite swarmers are also often confused with winged ants, which can swarm at the same time of year. Termites can be differentiated by their straight antennae, uniform waist, and wings of equal size. (Ants have elbowed antennae, constricted waists, and forewings that are longer than the hind wings).
Other signs of infestation are earthen (mud) tubes extending over foundation walls, support piers, sill plates, etc. The mud tubes are typically about the diameter of a pencil, but sometimes can be thicker. Termites construct these tubes for shelter as they travel between their underground colonies and the structure. To help determine if an infestation is active, the tubes may be broken open and checked for the presence of small, creamy-white worker termites. If a tube happens to be vacant, it does not necessarily mean that the infestation is inactive; termites often abandon sections of tube while foraging elsewhere in the structure. Termite damaged wood is usually hollowed out along the grain, with bits of dried mud or soil lining the feeding galleries. Wood damaged by moisture or other types of insects (e.g., carpenter ants) will not have this appearance. Occasionally termites bore tiny holes through plaster or drywall, accompanied by bits of soil around the margin. Rippled or sunken traces behind wall covering can also be indicative of termites tunneling underneath.
Unfortunately, there will oftentimes be no visible indications that the home is infested. Termites are cryptic creatures and infestations can go undetected for years, hidden behind walls, floor coverings, insulation, and other obstructions. Therefore, it is critical that the signs listed above not be overlooked and that trained professionals be consulted to confirm an infestation.
Once termites have been identified in a structure, a professional pest management company should be consulted. While some pests can be managed effectively by homeowners, termites require a special skill set and equipment most householders do not possess. Therefore, we strongly recommend that termites be left to the professionals.
Treatment options are generally divided into two categories: (1) liquid barrier treatments and (2) baits. Liquid barrier treatments are applied into the soil surround the structure. The main idea is to form a non-repellent zone that will kill termites that tunnel through the treated soil (e.g. when they enter or leave the structure). Baits work by placing an insecticide treated, cellulose-based substrate into a cylindrical container in the ground surrounding the building. Termites forage around homes for food, and when they bump into the baits, they will begin eating and sharing this food with the colony. Once consumed, the baits will begin to slowly kill termites. Both treatments are usually effective, but the decision of which to use is best left to the pest control company and the homeowner. No matter which method is selected, it is important to have an experienced technician, backed by a responsible pest control company. It is important to note that all treatments take time to work, so the problem will not disappear overnight.
Due to the expense of termite treatment, homeowners often ask if “partial” or “spot” treatments can be conducted. While these are appealing, they are a major gamble for homeowners. Termite colonies often number in the hundreds of thousands, and we can only see a fraction of the population. Therefore, termite infestation signs are observed, they are usually indicative of a larger termite problem, meaning spot treatments are unlikely to be effective. Additionally, these treatments are generally not warrantied, meaning future problems will be the responsibility of the homeowner.
Lastly, it is important to note that when applied following the label instructions, registered termiticides pose no significant hazard to humans, pets, or the environment. However, please consult with your pest control provider to determine the best course of action if you have any concerns.
How to Select a Good Pest Control Company
Termite treatments are often expensive; therefore, it is important that homeowners take their time in selecting a company. Time is seldom an issue given that termite damage progresses slowly, meaning homeowners can take weeks (even a month or more) to make a decision with little increased risk to the structure. It is recommended that homeowners get a least a couple quotes so they can compare costs and treatment options. Oftentimes companies have different approaches regarding treatment, which is beneficial for homeowners to hear and compare. Some things to consider when selecting a pest control company:
- Reputation: How long has the company been around and how have they worked for other clients?
- Experience: How many termite jobs has the technician done and what is their success rate?
- Licensed and Insured: The company should be licensed by the Kentucky Department of Agriculture to operate a pest control business in the state of Kentucky. In addition, the company should hold insurance on all of their pest control operations.
- Membership in Pest Control Associations: Are they members of either the Kentucky Pest Management Association or the National Pest Management Association? Both offer numerous training resources and suggest that the company is an established firm with access to technical and training information needed to do the job correctly.
- Warranty/Service Agreement: Does the company guarantee their work and do they offer an annual renewal on the service?
- Ask lots of questions: This is a great way to determine the knowledge of the company providing the treatment.
Termites are a challenging pest to say the least. However, given the excellent termite control products currently available, an experienced technician should have little to no problem controlling infestations.