Termite FAQ – Anything Else

The more unusual questions

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  • 1. Repairs first or termites first?

    Should we demolish part of the house that's got termites in it?

    First up, the answer depends on what type of termites are creating the problem. If they are drywood termites, then maybe knocking things down will kill them, but if these are subterranean termites then definitely not. Drywood termites live in small colonies, usually in individual pieces of timber, so a thoughtful demolition may effectively remove active colonies. Subterraneans don't; they like to spread out through the structure and will have several paths to ground (for water). At the first strong vibrations, they will just go to ground and come back up later to resume the attack, perhaps even somewhere a bit further away. Early repairs just makes them harder to control and may cost you a lot more money. Once you open up their workings, the fresh, drying, air will force the termites to retreat.hand rips damaged stud

    With all types of termite, the individual does not matter. You can kill about half the termites in a colony and have it recover. You have to destroy the colony itself. This is often best done with baits, dusts or non-repellent soil poisons. It takes time. At least a month, maybe several months to more than a year.

    To be certain of the right course of action, you need a specialist termite inspection report and that means a competent inspection of the whole site by someone who really knows what they're doing, has the right tools, and uses them. Once you know the which, where and the why, you are ready to make a good decision. But in general, it is almost always best to control the colonies before you undertake and repairs or major changes unless the damage is a safety or security hazard.

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  • 2. Do termites bite?

    Can termites spread disease?

    Yes, termites do bite people but only if you get them angry. Most termites have to be biting on thin skin (like between your fingers or similar) before you'll even be able to notice their grim determination. They don't set out to bite people, but they will bite in defense and they do tend to hang on. The bites of bigger species like Mastotermes, Macrotermes and some dampwood termites are quite easily noticed. I've seen small blood marks from a Mastotermes bite near a technician's navel. Strangely, it is much more often the meek-looking workers that bite (me) than the big-jawed, heavy-set, scary-looking soldier termites. Alates (swarmers) may have bitten me. I've never noticed.

    As for disease, there's no available evidence to suggest that termite bites have ever transferred anything to humans. They don't remain sensitive and never seem to swell.

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  • 3. What about orange oil for drywood termites?

    Orange oil is the name given to extracts from the peel of citrus. Mostly this is near pure d-limonene. It is a general solvent. You have probably used it in bathroom or hand cleaner products that have a citrus smell. It kills insects. I specified it as the recommended cleanup solvent for the Blockaid non-toxic termite barrier as it was much less of an OH&S risk than mineral turpentine and is even known to potentially reduce some cancers.

    In the USA it is being used as an injectable treatment against drywood termites, mostly in California as heavily promoted by a bloke who writes for the usually high quality SFGate. In 2007 the Californian Structural Pest Control Board commissioned research on the spot treatment of drywood termites and has available, for free download, excellent reports of the work headed by Drs Vernard Lewis and Mike Rust. If you must do spot treatments for drywoods, then read these reports! An in-depth and not very complimentary review of the orange oil method is available online at http://www.birc.org/JanFeb2008.pdf

    So long as you can get it to soak through the at-risk timber, a good dose of limonene should kill the termites but as for any residue providing long-term deterrence, well don't hold your breath because it evaporates. You'd probably need to seal the holes and put a quality coating system over it (filler and paint or varnish) to get any to stick around. If the timber is more than slightly damaged, replacement may be advisable.

    I've also had great success using d-limonene as a fire starter. A small amount will help even the stubborn logs light. Makes a lot of smoke (good for lighting Hawaiian bbq?). So, while I'm sure the chemical can kill termites, beetles, ants and maybe even some fungi, I'd hesitate to use it myself anywhere that there was a risk of fire but perhaps that's because I live in a high fire risk zone

    The usual proviso with drywoods also applies, depending on your situation. You may never find all the colonies, so fumigating the whole structure may be a safer alternative to spot treatments.

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  • 4. Are straw bale buildings safe from termites?

    Very few termites are likely to be interested in eating the straw bales themselves. Even those that normally eat grass. Lots of subterranean termites will happily travel through the bales to reach unprotected framing timbers (such as door frames and window lintels - see photo).

    You won't sit the bales right on the soil anyway (moisture hazard) so all it takes is some attention to design to put a subterranean termite block in the foundation, just as you would with any other house design.

    If you've already built without considering, find a well-skilled termite manager to inspect and advise. Keep in mind that the biggest threat to straw bales (after moisture-caused decay) comes from rodents, especially mice.

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  • 5. Can termites eat concrete?

    No. They can damage poor concrete and may sometimes be able to widen a crack or gap, but in general they will leave concrete alone. See also here

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  • 6. What is a fair price to pay to have the termites in my house exterminated?

    I'm sorry, but there's no simple answer to your question.  It is like asking 'how much will my next car cost?': There are just too many big variables for any single answer to be useful.

    Price depends very much on what steps need to be taken and this in turn depends on the type of termites, the location, the construction and a whole lot of other factors like how long they've been there, how big is the colony an what colony control method is most suitable..

    Let's assume you live i the USA in a typical (not huge) house. You might be super lucky and get a a small infestation of subterraneans killed for $450 but chances are you are looking at something in the range of $2,000 to $4,000. If they are drywoods, a fumigation may even run to a bit more.

    It may be necessary to put in soil chemicals (termiticide) or to have an ongoing monitoring system as it is unlikely that termites won't try to attack again some time in the future.  There's usually no value in words like "exterminate" or "eradicate" except in the short-term.  If you find termites, you need to control them and to take steps to manage the ongoing risk.

    Only by getting the place properly inspected can you find out what needs to be done.

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  • 7. My house is being 'treated' for termites. Will this affect my two year old?

    Young children (and the unborn) tend to be at higher risk from environmental toxins that are adults. The risk you will face depends on both the type of termite and the type of treatment. that's being done. Basically there are three types of treatment.

    The lowest risk are with baits for subterranean termites which use hormone-like chemicals to interrupt insect growth. At the rates they are applied, these are very low risk to people (and anything else that hasn't got its skeleton on the outside).

    Next are the fumigant gases uses when a building is tented for drywood termites, these evaporate away almost entirely and pose little if any risk to you (or any returning termites) if the gas is properly handled and vented. Make sure that everything has enough time to out-gas. Some furnishing (like rubber cushions) may need a longer time.  Your technician will advise.

    Last are the straight poisons (termiticides) which are usually applied to the soil but are increasingly used indoors as well. These always pose some risk, especially if poorly applied. You need to find out the identity of the toxin and look it up on the next. Search on 'toxicity of" and then the chemical name (not just the product name). Termiticides are not all the same, and  some termiticides are best avoided because of their risk profiles (such as organophosphates and still in some countries, organochlorines).  Nearly all will persist for quite some time, and this is where exposure is likely. Make sure you are away when the chemical is placed and don't return until after the recommended period. You will need to do your own research, but from manufacturer claims, it looks like the current least-toxic soil termiticide is chlorantraniliprole, closely followed by imidacloprid. Many will dispute this. The biggest risk is chemicals sprayed on the soil around the building where your child plays and will inevitably pick up and ingest some (kids eat a lot of soil). Sometimes, chemicals are applied as dusts or foams into wood or wall cavities. As long as any excess is cleaned up (and you don't open the cavity), the risks are considered low.  In a few backward countries, like Australia, the government allows for arsenic dust to be used. Arsenic dust is highly toxic, doesn't break down and isn't not more effective than the modern alternatives. It should never be used. If you find unexplained red, blue or white dust in termite-eaten wood or their old shelter tubes, please consider it dangerous until proven otherwise.

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  • 8. Where did the symbiotic thingies that live in termite's intestines come from?

    Like, where did they live before there were termites to live in?

    Termites are just cockroaches that have learned to cooperate very well. They are thought to have begun as something like the wood-feeding cockroach genus Cryptocercus. The microbes that live so successfully in their guts are derived from similar free-living forms in rotting logs that get eaten when cockroaches eat the rot.  So both the ancestoral microbes and the ancestoral cockroaches were living in logs and soil well before termites came about.  You can imagine a termite as a streamlined cockroach shaped by the needs and profit of the microbes as well as the benefits of living in social groups. Over time, the gut organisms became adapted to their unique habitat and co-evolved tightly with their hosts to the point that most are critical for the termites' success.

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  • 9. Should I buy a house that has termites?

    They say it will be quick and cheap to get rid of them.

    In real estate trading, if a deal seems unbelievably good, then it probably isn't to be believed. A house with an unknown level of termite damage poses and unknown financial risk.

    A house that has been attacked by termites has lost some value.  It the attack has been severe or ongoing, then the value of the house is way down. A big problem is that the inspector has no way to assess the extent of past damage without ripping open a few walls and other surfaces. Remember that buildings weakened by termites are more likely to fail during severe storms or earthquakes.

    Termites hide.  The damage they do is nearly all concealed and can only be seen by ripping things apart.  We can guess the extent of the damage, but we have to really mess things up to be certain and that means a lot of costly repairs even if nothing much is found Vendors don't like that and only allow an inspector to perform a visual inspection, usually without even being able to move furniture to look behind. Some vendors will try hard to conceal defects that might make the house look bad.

    To determine likely repair costs, you would need what is called an invasive inspection by both the termite inspector and a building professional. This gets tricky. If the vendor will agree (in writing) to let your inspectors conduct an invasive inspection without either them or you having to make good any surfaces they choose to open, then it may be worth considering the purchase. Normally you would make an offer subject to the inspection works providing a repair cost estimate below an agreed figure (which you don't tell the inspector!). That gives you room to get out if the place really isn't worth it. You would want a good lawyer to draw up the contracts. Mostly the vendor will say no.

    Chances are that a few more things needing fixing will be found during the partial demolition before repairs begin.  You could also be up for works to prevent immediate reinfestation.  All this adds up.

    Bottom line is that it would have to be an extremely desirable house and a very appealing sale price.  Is this particular house really worth the risk?

    Pest managers seem to be good at buying discounted termite-damaged houses and fixing them up to live in. If you can get a good estimate of the damage, are willing to take the chance, you can ask the vendor to drop the price by a sum that's larger than the expected control, repair and risk-reduction costs. Most people will keep looking.

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  • 10. My grandfather's house is being fumigated. When will it be safe for him to go back inside?

    He thinks he can go straight back in, but I'm worried that the poison will hurt him.

    The fumigant used for drywood termites is a very thin gas. It is supposed to penetrate deeply and be all gone before anyone considers re-entry. Perhaps some gas might remain for a while in things like the sponge-rubber of furniture but it will dissipate fairly quickly. I wouldn't worry about washing utensils but I'd probably go through his pantry and dump some food that worried me.

    It is much easier to go in before the application and double-bag (Ziplocs or similar) anything that might be a concern.

    Bottom line is to ask the company that did the work. Make sure they have allocated the right venting period and have properly cleared the house. If the job has been done according to the rules, he probably can move back in with no worries. To be super-safe, keep him out for another day or two.

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  • 11. I knocked down some termite shelter tubes. They were under my house. Where have the termites gone? Will they come back?

    Sorry, but you've probably done the wrong thing. These tubes are produced by subterranean termites and provide cover for them to traverse over things they don't want to eat in order to reach the things they do want to eat. If upset by the disturbance, the termites can easily switch to another path into the house--often one that you can't find. Trouble is, you termite inspector may not be able to find it either. It is almost always better not to disturb them until you have a proper inspection done and decided on the right response strategy. Instead of slowing them down, you have likely slowed yourself and the likely result is that it may end up costing you a bit more to be rid of them.  Sometimes the termites will quickly repair a damaged tube but some species will stay away for a long time and a few may not ever come back.

    One thing that's sure is that breaking their tubes is not a safe way to control the colony. On the other hand, if your house sits up on stilts or stumps, then having a few trained chickens underneath to regularly break the tubes may actually give good control (used in some Pacific islands) but only if the termites have no alternative concealed entry paths.

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  • 12. How long after termite barrier treatment can I plant my herb garden?

    They sprayed all around the outside of the house about four years ago.

    You can do it right now, but should keep your garden far from the house. Something over 6 feet or 2 metres is good. The water you add to the soil will be attractive to termites, so the further out the better (but not so far you can't nip out for a herb). If this doesn't work for you, grow your garden in raised tubs that you can see underneath.

    Make sure that you don't dig up the termtiicide-soaked soil. If you dilute, damage or remove the volume of poisoned soil, you may enable termites to enter.  This is a bigger risk if your termiticide was a repellent one, like Bifenthrin, as the trmites can easily detect where there are gaps.
    Leafy greens will often take up toxins from the soil and some termiticide sprays (like imidacloprid) are taken up by plants. That's good if you have aphids, but but maybe not so much if you have termites.
    Most perimeter sprays aren't much good after 5 years, but it is still best to leave them until your regular inspector says you need more work done.

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  • 13. Will garden mulch attract termites?

    I live in the deep south of the USA. Termites are a problem here but gardens need mulch. What should I do?

    The risk from mulches depends a lot on where you live and what types of mulch are used, but yes, generally mulch will be attractive to termites.

    The termites like mulch because it gives them much better ways to travel. Think of it, a whole new loose layer over the soil.  No more tunneling.  The mulch creates a dark, damp and safe set of ready-made roadways which they just love to exploit.

    Some mulches are made from types of wood or bark that they don't like.  Termites won't use these very much or at all for at least the first season (until they rot and the repellent is lost).   Others have boron salt added.  This is a great repellent and slows down decay unless the poisoned mulch gets wet, then the boron salt washes into the soil where it can upset your plants.  I think your mulch will get wet.

    The mulch will only become a problem if it either provides the termites with a hidden path into the house or if it helps their population grow.  The best way is to keep it (and the garden beds) away from the exterior walls.  If you have a 30 cm to 1 mt wide band of paving or gravel around the house, this will make it harder for them to sneak in unseen.  Just don't bury or wreck any perimeter termite work when you put it in.

    There's a very small chance that termites my be delivered with mulch, causing a new infestation. Even if you find a few live ones, they are unlikely to re-group and survive. However, it is still theoretically possible for some species in some locations where the mulch has sat for a long time before delivery and then hasn't been mixed around as it was placed. Theoretically possible, but very unlikely to occur.

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  • 14. What is a termite swarm?

    The really odd thing about a termite swarm is that it is the one time when cooperation goes out the window.  It is every termite for his- or herself. Even family stop caring for their young.

    A swarm is a coordinated flight of winged (alate) termites.  It happens several times a year when the local colonies try to release fully grown (fit, healthy, strong, winged and sighted) termites capable of reproduction.  They fly off, typically only a 100 m (say 300 feet) or so unless there's a breeze.  The aim, if female, is to quickly find a home site and if male, to pair with a female who's already found  a good home site and signalled her intentions.

    They sometimes seem to fill the sky.  Almost all fail but just enough make it so that they keep on surviving.  Flights are short, termites only get into one flight.  It is all or nothing.  There's no going back into the nest. Swarms may happen a few times a year or quite often. They mostly happen late in the day but some species like to let go in the morning.

    More here

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  • 15. How can I stop termites eating the seedlings/ trees/ herbs I have planted?

    Not long after planting, they're nearly dead from termites eating the roots.

    In some parts of the world, particularly parts of Africa and Asia, termites will quickly attack and kill transplanted trees and plants.  They attack the roots.  In the past, some very heavy doses of scary pesticides have been used to help the plants get established.  The attacks seem to drop off once the plants have been in for a few months. Keeping the plants well-watered all the time can make a big difference as water-stressed plants are more readily attacked. If you do decide to use a termiticide at planting, make sure the product label covers this application. Opinion as to whether to use a repellent or non-repellent termticide seems to vary with locations and species and some find value in a systemic (such as imidacloprid) that makes the whole of the plant toxic for a while (even the pollen, so don't use on plants that are close to flowering).

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  • 16. How do drywood termites get to my house?

    . . if they don't tunnel in like the subterraneans did.

    There are two ways that drywood termites can begin infesting a house.  By far the most common is by when they fly in and find a good place to live (in an exposed piece of timber) and start a new colony.  The second way is for a colony to hitch a ride.  Often this happens when they come in with furniture, even in new furniture, but just about any lump of wood can do it- such as a bread board, ornament or violin.  I've had reports of new hollow-core internal doors being installed with drywood termites already in them.

    Inspection is the only way to know that you have them.

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  • 17. What should I do to stop my new water tanks increasing the chance of termite attack?

     . . . they are made of plastic.

    Tanks to catch rainwater from your roof are a great idea but if thoughtlessly placed, can massively increase the risk of subterrranean termite attack.

    The tank should not be so close to the wall that you can't see behind it.  A sight line and air gap of 150 mm (6 inches) is a good idea.  That makes it less likely that termites will be buidling hidden shelter tubes up the wall, and will allow you to spot them if they do.  If your tank must go against the wall (design constraints), then it needs to be raised on a platform that you can see behind and which allows for full and easy inspection..

    The tank should be securely mounted on a firm surface.  If your house relies on termiticides (poisoned-soil) such as is applied with perimeter sprays or reticulation pipes, you must make sure that these are not defeated or damaged by the installation works.

    Even if the tank is to be placed well away from the walls, you still need to be sure that excavations for new pipes have not provided an easy path for termites. Subterranean termites like to tunnel in the softer earth of pipe trenches.

    The soil down below a tank will be at a more constant temperature and will tend to retain moisture.  This makes it a nicer place to be a termite.  If your tank sits right on the soil or sand, termites can come up beneath it searching for condensing moisture.  They'll take a bite out of any soft materials they find. In some eastern States of the USA, tanks (and above ground pools) may occasionally be sat on an organic material, such as peat moss. This is not a great way to defeat termites. Much better to sit the tanks on a bead of fine crushed rock or coarse sand.

    Be careful with where your overflows go. Once a tank is full, you want any excess water to  drain away far away from your house.  Water soaking in against walls or under a house is a prime factor driving termite infestation.


    Oh, and make sure your tank's input and output pipes are well screened so it doesn't become a mosquito farm.


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  • 18. How long does it take for a termite colony to mature?

    To grow up, produce swarmers, make new colonies.

    Maturity is commonly said to be reached when the colony can reproduce. From the time that the founding pair first mate to the colony producing winged adults, and releasing them to become a new generation, sometimes takes as little as three years but can be much longer, depending on the species and conditions.  The winged termites (also known as swarmers but correctly as alates) don't appear until the colony has grown substantially.  Usually several generations of offspring develop as generic workers and special soldiers, building a nest system and grow their numbers before the first termites are allowed to develop the wings and other bits needed for reproduction.  For the main subterranean pests, these emerging colonies may go unnoticed (even with the best inspections). A colony of subterraneans is often closer to seven years old before there is any major surface evidence to see.  If food is poor or water is hard to get, the colony may grow slowly and weakly.  In the warm, wet tropics (think Honolulu, Miami or Manila) a colony can grow much more quickly than it can in cooler places (like Paris, Chicago or Canberra).  With insects, being cold-blooded, effective time varies with temperature, it races in the heat and crawls in the cold, so it is next to impossible to provide an accurate estimate for any given colony.

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  • 19. Who runs the colony?
    Che Guevara
    Fearless leader

    Most people will tell you that a termite Queen rules her colony. I think that's a figment of their paradigm (way of looking at things). Sure the primary reproductive is central to the colony, and the laying of eggs is particularly important to colony survival, but to believe that she sits (locked) in her Royal Cell, exuding chemicals which neatly control the behaviour of each and every termite is a little far fetched. Rather, the termite colony is a form of exquisite chaos, much like the way we drive cars on roads. There are some basic traffic laws which are mostly followed, but rigid compliance only occurs in the presence of threat (police). Still, there are few accidents, and despite the individual will, things generally work out OK. Of course if one big traffic cop was trying to coordinate everything with explicit instructions to thousands of cars at once -- things could get ugly..

    Termites in the colony ebb and flow. Like us, they take on different roles as they mature. Unlike us (perhaps, unlike us after we reach adulthood), termites are strong followers. They follow the group, being strongly attracted to scents which are exuded from the underside of the belly. Thus the more termites walking a path, the more attractive that path becomes. So a simple positive feedback recruits more termites to a good food source. When a bee finds a good food source she (all the workers of the Hymenoptera {Ants, bees & wasps} are female, whereas a foraging termite can be of either sex), she returns to the hive and performs an elegant dance which recruits other workers to the same spot. What happens with termites? They are blind, so the dance is no use. Do they smell the breath {termites don't really breath through their mouths}, sniff the bottom like dogs? Perhaps.

    Things are more complicated than this simple positive feedback, because termites from a single colony forage in many areas at once, and can only work if there are negative feedback mechanisms to balance the positive ones. If not, as in Resnick's simple model (pdf), all the termites would feed at the one source. Besides feeding on optimal food sources, termites tend the young, construct and maintain the nest, defend it against predators, collect water, humidify and condition the nest atmosphere, control unwanted microbes and tend or farm others.

    The termite colony is indeed a site of complex behaviours, but these are emergent behaviours, arising as patterns as the individual termites go about, governed by simple rules. It's true that the primary reproductive plays a disproportionate role in the determinant of overall colony behaviour, but her influence on the moment by moment activity of any termite is probably no stronger than your head of state's influence upon what you are doing right now. And besides, termite families are rarely simple. Colonies can be more like communes with gangs of more closely related termites--still part of the same colony--tending to hang out and feed separately. It gets complex. Enough said.

    Copyright © 1996-2016 Don Ewart Created, Saturday, 17 February 1996
    Most recent code revision March 5 2016

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  • 20. What are termites?

    Termites are incredible, small insects that have mastered cooperation allowing them to achieve great things, such as building skyscrapers, hollowing huge trees, moving vast amounts of soil and of course, eating your house.

    Termites are not ants. Most people are comfortable that they know what an ant is, but hardly anyone seems sure they know what makes a termite a termite. Again, because it is worth repeating, termites are not ants and they are certainly not white ants. That's a really sloppy term, please don't use it. Termites are organised cockroaches, and so are very different to ants.

    Just like the huge variations you seen in the ants, the termites are similarly diverse with lots of different life styles. The different types of do very different things and from the perspective of controlling termites, it is important to find out what type of termite you have as this affects what you should do.

    Color most termites are typically whitish, often almost see-through. You can usually see the food in their gut, but the winged ones are usually much darker (as above) many possible colours, usually black or dark red or brown
    Shape six-legged grub, fairly short legs six-legged grub with narrow waist, legs longer.
    Wings if present, four, roughly twice as long as body, all the same size and shape.  They are deciduous., being discarded after flight. if present, four, about the same length as body, rear wings obviously smaller than the front pair.  The wings are retained after flight.  Winged ants are typically about the same colour as the rest of the colony.
    Head no eyes unless winged form (eyes are also very rarely in soldiers). usually obvious eyes
    Antennae like a string of pearls definitely elbowed, with longer segments
    Body soft harder, tougher

    Coptotermes lacteus exposed in their mound

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  • 21. What are termites? 2~~Nerdy version

    Coptotermes lacteus exposed in their moundTermites belong to the Order Blattodea (Pronounced Blat-oh-dee-a) , which they share with the cockroaches and sit in the infraorder Isoptera (Pronounced Eye-sop-terra).  The termites (before nucleic acids took over taxonomy)  had their own full order, but were later found to sit within the spread of the cockroaches.  That name came form the Greek, Iso meaning equal and pteron, meaning wing. The name referred to the wings of the reproductive caste, which isn't very helpful as most termites are plain workers that never get to grow wings. There are two pairs of wings, with the front pair the same size as the hind pair. The name termite comes from the Latin word termes meaning woodworm (which probably covered some beetle larvae as well). See also here.

    Drawing of a Reticulitermes flavipes alateTermites are small, pale to whitish, soft-bodied social insects living in a nest or colony system. They all feed mostly on plant fibre (cellulose). The colony is divided into castes, which do different jobs and mostly also look different.  The most numerous worker caste is relatively undifferentiated and performs much of the colony work, there is a specialised soldier caste with head and jaw structures differentiated with stronger features and often mouthparts more suited to defence than feeding. The reproductive caste, known as alates (winged ones) are produced when nymphs mature to develop wings and a generally darker colouring. Metamorphosis is gradual (there is no pupal stage)
    The head is rounded and eyes generally absent except in the reproductive caste (and rarely in soldiers), antennae are beaded ('moniliform') with more than ten obvious beads, wings are also absent except in reproductive caste. They all have strong chewing mouthparts and can broadly be separated by looking at the patterns of their tiny teeth (not like ours, more like saw teeth). The wings are deciduous, shed shortly after Post-flight female of Coptotermes lacteus signalling for a mate.  Note wings already discarded.nuptial flight through breakage at a suture near point of attachment (hence de-alate), leaving small scales which persist. Termites are weak fliers, flights occur only under favourable conditions: nearly still air, high humidity and with falling barometric pressure indicating a likelihood of following rain. No constriction of the abdomen (as in ants, bees and wasps). Here's a similar description at the University of Delaware

    a worker termiteTermites also behave in ways that makes them easy to identify. For a start, nearly every type live completely in the dark (except when building or when the winged ones are flying), so you usually only see them when something is broken or open. Once exposed, they will try to follow their scent trails home. If these are broken they just wander around looking lost or squeeze into any gap they can find.


    Drawing of a Coptotermes soldier termiteMost species of termites have what is called a soldier caste. These grow strong heads, often much darker than those of the other termites. Very often, these strong heads also have big jaws. If you can find some of these among you termites, it makes the job of identifying the species much easier. Soldiers may be rare, only a few percent of the population, so look carefully.

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  • 22. What's 'Inside the termite mound'?

    With apologies to the band Killing Joke

    Mud, poo, chewed up food, lots of bacteria and fungi and, a surprising diversity of hangers-on (inquilines)

    Fossil termite mounds of western USA
    Fossil mounds

    Not all types of ground-nesting termites build mounds.  The only termite mounds of note in North America are either fossils or models.  But mounds are common in Africa, SE Asia and South America.

    Some termites, particularly some that only eat grass, always seem to build big obvious mounds.  Many subterranean termites only build mounds when their original nest tree/stump/log is lost or outgrown.  Mounds may persist for decades.  Some mounds in African savannas have been dated (from accumulated salts in their air-conditioning ducts) as being over 4,000 years.  More than that, they are said to have been continuously occupied for that time.  In an architectural sense, that's quite an achievement.

    Architects increasingly like termite mounds.  A big mound may house a million of more termites in relative comfort.  Coptotermes lacteus, which I studied for many years, can keep the temperature deep in the mound where the queen and eggs reside stable ± 1°C over a whole day, throughout the year.  That's better than commercial air conditioning.  They do it mostly with evaporative cooling, solar collection, lots of thermal mass and, in the depths of winter, huddling to share metabolic heat.  They don't keep a set temperature, but have a very graceful temperature curve, allowing gradual change between the seasons.

    As well as the temperature, they constantly manage gas exchange and moisture content.  All of this in castles made of clay and their own faeces.

    Mounds are a huge investment of energy and resources.  To build a mound, a colony must have a long-term supply of good food nearby.  It must also be large, since many termites will spend their time maintaining the mound rather than feeding and these will need to be fed.

    Magnetic termite mounds
    Nasutitermes meridionalis
    Nasutitermes triodiae mound Kakadu, 6 metres plus. Don on left.
    Nasutitermes triodiae

    Some of the largest and most spectacular mounds in Australia are built by termites that feed only on grass.  The "magnetic mounds" around Darwin are the best known, but the much larger "cathedral" mounds of Nasutitermes triodiae are equally spectacular.  Compare the height of the one pictured here with Don (white t-shirt and suffering the Spon).  Both these mound types allow the termites to live in swampland and store food to be used during the long wet season.  But not all grass-eaters' mounds are tall. Drepanotermes which live in the dry inland country down to NW Victoria build wide flat mounds known as "platforms" which often look like slightly-domed patches of bare earth.

    Platform mound of Drepanotermes, sits below height of surrounding grass.
    Drepanotermes low mound

    In Africa and SE Asian there are many types that grow big, obvious fungus gardens in their mounds.  Macrotermes and Odontotermes are the best known.  But fungi and bacteria are present in all mounds and it is likely that most other mound-building species are also farmers of some sort (or are themselves being farmed).

    Like Hansel & Gretel's fairytale house of gingerbread, termite mounds are at least partly made of stuff that can be re-used as food, so the mound represents a significant larder as well as the group's habitation.  Coptoteremes in particular can be kept in the lab for many months without added food if housed in their own nest material.

    Northern Australian mound rebuilt around discarded tyre. Don't know who sent me this back in 2000. Would like to know so I can give credit.
    Mound exploiting rubber tyre

    Mounds also have to be good at shedding excess rain water, not washing away too quickly and also moderating the flow of gases into and out of the mound.  On top of this, they must also act to exclude predators.  Mounds are constantly being rebuilt as this photo of a captured 4WD tyre shows:

    We could talk about mounds for days on end without exhausting the features and interests of the various forms.

    Model mound, National Zoo, Washington DC
    Model mound
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  • 23. How can I avoid termite problems?

    Simple ways to avoid meeting termites

    In the wild, pest termites usually get by quite happily eating sickly trees or the leftover bits of trees, and the safest, moist and tasty bits are usually underground or right in the middle of big pieces of timber. If your home/building/structure has big bits of wood that are dark or damp or close to the soil then your chances of avoiding termite problems are reduced.

    Hand crushing a paper-thin, termite-eaten wall stud
    Hollowed stud

    Subterranean & dampwood termites
    Subterranean termites usually get about by tunneling underground and entering their food from below. Tree roots are usually attached to trees and termites often travel from root to root great distances underground (there's almost always a small air gap under a big root, so they don't even have to dig as much). Timber waste buried around buildings usually leads to better food inside. Sometimes the termites just fly in and start up a fresh colony, but tunnelling is more common, because big bits of damp wood suitable for nesting are more often outside, not in. Dampwood termites don't tunnel nearly as much but can fly in just as easily.
    Since the termites are most likely to try to get in via the soil, there are some simple things you can do:

    Control moisture:

        • All types of termites need moisture. Keep your structure dry and well ventilated.
          Open roof drain leaks rainwater to soil, gives termites a free drink
          A free drink
        • Ventilate all possible subfloor areas and ensure the vents are kept free and clear. Make sure you wet areas inside (kitchen/bathroom/dungeon) are well vented. Wood can get wet, but must not stay wet.
        • Fix all plumbing leaks. Particularly showers and baths. These often have leaks supplying constant moisture that makes the wood just right to be eaten.
        • Check all gutters and down spouts, make sure that the water ends up well away from the house. Ideally down spouts should connect to stormwater drains. If you don't have these, at least redirect the water well away from the house. Down spouts which regularly splash near the structure may be supplying an irresistible source of moisture.
          Water pooling against brick wall. Never a good idea
          Biochemist's paving blunder
        • Avoid having gardens directly against walls--if you must do this, provide space for air movement between the vegetation and the wall and an inspection zone of at least 100 mm. Never have sprinklers wetting the soil near a building or deck. Termites have even been known to enter a building through branches touching walls.
        • Make sure that any paving is angled to drain surface water away from the structure. You'd be amazed how often this is done wrong. Some people even build outdoor paving higher than the interior floor level . . . like in this photo of the paving around my house.

    Be careful with timber in ground contact:

      • Remove any timber or cellulose material stored on the ground beneath a suspended floor. That includes cardboard boxes and old newspapers, even cotton materials. Clean up any off cuts left during construction. The aim is to maximize the distance between termites and their potential meal.
        termite tunnels in polystyrene
      • Don't store any firewood in ground contact. This attracts termites. It also prevents the wood drying properly and hence reduces the heat yield on burning (it takes energy to boil water). Set your firewood at least 100 mm above ground (a shelf ot trench-mesh sitting on cinder blocks is a cheap solution).
      • Structural wood in ground contact should be either termite resistant or treated with a preservative. Better yet, cut it off and mount it on a metal stirrup set in concrete. High and dry is always best.
      • Don't provide hidden entry points where temites can walk in unseen. Stucco can hide termite freeways and rigid foam slab-edge insulation can be a nightmare, providing termites with easy and secure tunnel space where you can't see them. Instead, provide an impervious inspection zone. Use long-life physical barriers in all new construction.
        decorative stone veneer in ground contact can conceal termites
        Hidden entry paths

        There's a trend in the USA now to have stone veneers in ground contact. All these concealing wall finishes create a major risk.

    Drywood termites
    Drywood termites can live in small pieces of wood so long as it is a little moist and not too hot or cold. They'll fly in and start their colonies right in that wood. Best way to keep them at bay is to disguise your timber.

    • Too Dry:Keeping timber very dry will make it impossible for termites to live, but this is impractical in many tropical and coastal areas where the natural humidity is sufficient to keep the wood moist enough for drywood termites. Do what you can to keep timber as dry as possible.
    • Disguised:If they don't know it is wood, they may not find it. Keep all exterior wood well coated with paint or varnish, especially the larger bits and at the joins and ends. Drywood termites begin their attack with just two termites. First the female selects a likely place to live and then pairs up with a male before they start tunnelling. So if you can make the wood unattractive, the termites won't even try. A bit of preservative can go a long way. If it doesn't taste good, the termites won't hang around.
    • Inaccessible:If they can't get to the wood they can't eat it. Seal up any cracks or fissures (these make it easy for them to get in). Cover vents with fine mesh screening (about 0.8 to 1.0 mm openings--but remember, you may need to increase the vent size to make up for this restriction of air flow). Pay particular attention to the roof and wall frames.

    Following these simple points will greatly reduce your termite hazard. Best of all is to design your structure to be termite resistant from the very beginning. Remember too, that regular inspections can locate termites before they do any major damage.

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  • 24. How do I choose the right pest manager?

    Trust and confidence need to be established. Will this pest manager do a good, competent job at a fair price? There are some slick and very shonky sales people out there ready to rip you off. There are honest pest managers who just want to give you a good job at a fair price. There are big companies and small companies, caring companies and careless companies. How can you decide who to employ?
    Here's a few simple pointers. I hope they help.

    1. The Need: Don't be rushed. Chances are you have plenty of time to consider your options.  Termites work slowly and so may you. Take your time and make the right choices.  Consider how you know what you know.  Keep notes of all conversations and keep your paper trail.
    2. The Business: The preferred way to find the right business is by talking with your friends and finding out who they have used successfully.  Word-of-mouth keeps many successful businesses thriving.

      How secure is the business?

      Does it have a bad name?

      Are they afraid to answer your questions?

      Does the mention of their name ring alarm bells at your local consumer advocacy/complaints group?

      Can they provide the names of satisfied customers as referees?

      Don't necessarily feel that big is better; an apparently large company may turn out to be just loosely controlled franchises, offering at best no better service than their smaller competition.

      The quality of the job will only be as good as the person who carries it out. Will the person actually doing the work be well trained and knowledgeable and able to talk with you or are you dealing with a salesperson who can only provide the quotation?

    3. Face to Face: Meet them on your own turf, not their's. Depending on the nature of the problem, many pest controllers will provide a quotation either at no cost or fairly inexpensively. They may be prepared to just turn up and talk with you while requiring a fee before they'll do any inspection. This is fair, as any information they provide on the basis of inspection whether free or at cost, implies at least some professional responsibility and hence potential liability on their part. Beware the "free" inspection. Everything has to be paid for eventually, by somebody, sometime.   Separate the inspection from the control proposal.  Make sure that you get a proper (on paper) timber pest inspection (WDO, or 'Wood Destroying Organism") report and make sure that it identifies the pests as far as possible.
    4. Safety in Numbers: Approach at least two or three businesses. Compare their advice and quotations. Decide whom you would best trust with your assets. Then compare prices. Beware the surprisingly cheap quotation. It is easy to do a cursory inspection and to excessively dilute any expensive chemicals, or just not apply them where they should go. Remember the value of a good warranty. Read Claire's experience. Know the different ways termites can be managed and why the one proposed is thought best for you.
    5. The Fine Print: What does the paperwork look like?Ask to see it up front.  After an inspection, you should be handed a written report, usually with a site diagram and the problem areas at least approximately mapped. The information should be clear. If it is presented on a preprinted form, the notations should be informative and quite clear. Look over the warranty. How small is the fine print? Do they mind you reading the contract? Is the scope of work made fully clear and is sufficient detail present to enable you to compare and contrast the quotes? Ideally, you will be asked to sign an agreement before any work occurs.  That's a good way to ensure you have matching expectations.
    6. A Relationship?: What about contracts? Are you just getting them to fix today's problem or are you signing up for a never-ending dependency? What if you sign and you don't want them back again? What if termites come back in one, two or three years? What will they do then? If they've done good work, should you pay a maintenance fee for the year on top of the other costs? It is always important to check value for money. Maybe that service contract is aimed more at maximising income rather than minimising termites? You have to work it all out. There's often comfort in a trusted name, but you should put at least as much weight on local people's experiences as you do on brand recognition. Don't get me wrong, sometimes service contracts are the way to go, especially with a baiting program where you want it all planned out and costed in advance.
    7. Deciding: Take some time to think over the information you have gathered.  One of the best ways is to get out of the house/office and go for a walk.  You'll think much more clearly.

    Vic Health has some good ideas and in Illinois, so does the Department of Public Health.  Hope this helps. Please feel free to email me with your experiences.

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