Termite FAQ – Identification

  • 1. Identity
There are thousands of termite species - how to work out which ones you have
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  • 1. Termites are flying inside my house. What should I do?
     

    Don't Panic

    Termite swarmers inside your home or bedroom may be very scary, but with luck, the risk can be assessed fairly quickly.Firstly, put down that can of fly spray. It really won't help and may make things a deal worse later on. Grab a few termites and put them in a plastic bag or a jar in the freezer. You may want these later for identification. Gather up the rest (vacuum or broom). Maybe feed them to your chickens or fish (if you didn't spray).

    Now for the important bits.

    Were the termites coming in from outside (this often happens if you leave a window open or have an outside light left on)? Termites outside are often just an unavoidable local hazard. Walk around to see if you can see them spilling out of any trees, garden wood etc.. winged termitesChances are it is just a few stragglers from a normal local flight. Order a specialist termite inspection if you haven't had one for a year (or if they were emerging from important timbers like pergolas, fences or out from your house).

    Were the termites coming from inside the house? Sometimes they'll emerge right out of a wall, through the plaster, often near the top of a window or from a door frame or other feature. Look for little holes, often lined with brown or red mud and with termites dropping out or termite heads sticking out. If you have any of these signs, then you do have serious problems. Termites flying from within a house mean that there is a significant termite presence already having fun at your expense. Take some photos. Clean up the mess. Save your sample termites from the kids (or spouse) so that you can get them identified. Get a competent termite inspection. The termites may fly several times over the space of a few weeks.

    Don't be rushed into any control measures. Consider your situation closely and act accordingly. Though it is true that the building may eventually fall down if you do nothing, this is usually years after the first flights and even then it tends to happen during storms.

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  • 2. How are drywood termites detected?
     

    What can a homeowner do?

    Drywood termites live in small colonies within the timbers of your house. They stay inside the timber except when taking out the trash or when the kids leave. The trash is made up of little pellets of poo (frass) which look a lot like pepper. When they have too much of it in the nest, they'll open up a little hole to the surface and dump it out. If you see little piles of peppery stuff that reappear after you remove them, then you probably have drywood termites. (Ant frass is unevenly sized with obvious dead bits in it)  Every so often, the colony kicks out a lot of young adults. These winged (alate) termites attempt to fly off, find a mate and start a new colony. If released inside, they are very hard to miss. That's the two main ways you're likely to find them: poo and flyers.

    A specialist termite inspector will do a slow and complete inspection, looking and using tools to try and find all these little colonies. It is a very tough job and the risk of missing the deeply hidden or just very small groups of drywood termites are quite high, almost certain in some situations. It is important that your inspector has good access to the whole of the house and has enough time to do the job properly. Have people available to move furniture and items as required.

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  • 3. 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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  • 4. Why are some termites called 'drywood'?
     

    'Drywood' is a misnomer. Absolutely all types of termites do need some water to live and none can survive for long in totally dry wood. The drywood termites though, are very good at getting by with surprisingly little moisture and this enables them to live in small colonies in small pieces of just-damp wood. They can thrive, while the wood is good food that stays sufficiently moist and doesn't get too hot or too cold. Mostly drywood termites are found in the tropics, in forests and along coasts and rivers. In fact, anywhere that regularly has enough water in the air so that wood tends to always stay that bit moist.

    Most mature drywood termite colonies number less than 1,000 termites and it may take the colony the best part of a decade to get to that size. Countering this, their habit of living within a piece of wood means that a house, tree, boat or even a door can be home to many separate colonies.

    Drywood termites are cryptic. They don't tunnel in the soil, they don't build shelter tubes, they don't build mounds or other fancy structures which means that drywood termites can be quite hard to find (check the wording on your timber pest inspection--they may be excluded)-- see this pdf). Each colony tends to make one or more holes in the surface of their nest wood. They use these as waste chutes for faeces, blocking them up after use. Drywood termite poo is little hard pellets because they generally need to retain as much water as possible. Often a pile of pellets is a sure sign. I first noticed it as a gentle rain of pepper-like material falling from the roof frame of a rustic hotel restaurant in Carita, West Java. Even sitting 4 metres below the roof, I knew for sure they were there.Carita beach West Java

    Normal termite controls (aimed at subterranean termites) are no use against drywoods. Using baits seems just plain silly. In small timbers (like doors, furniture, wooden legs etc.) it is easy to control the colony. In buildings it is often better to fumigate or 'treat' the whole structure, since you can rarely be 100% sure of finding and killing each individual colony.

    The drywood termites are all placed in the Family Kalotermitidae. The main one around the world is the supertramp West Indian Drywood Termite, Cryptotermes brevis but there are tens of others that regularly worry people. Sometimes some of the dampwood termites (Termopsidae) act as if they were drywood termites, producing faecal pellets instead of wet poo, so they may be thought of as functionally or opportunistically drywood.

    PS. Where I had used orange oil and wiped the excess from surfaces, a year or so later there is staining. Might just be the ones I was using, but be sure to fully clean away any residues.

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  • 5. 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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  • 6. 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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  • 7. I found termites in the garden. What should I do?
     

    Should I get the house sprayed?

    Depending on where you live, it may well be that the termites in your garden are no threat to anything.  There are lots of species that never, well mostly never, behave as pests.  In my garden a Nasutitermes and a Porotermes pose no threat to my home. I keep them as pets (and samples for teaching).  But you're not me.  Before doing any control measure, you really should have the termites identified AND inspect your house.  This will allow you to decide what to do from a position of power.  Only when you know the extent of the problem, will you be in a good position to choose between management options.

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  • 8. Why do all termite Genera have names ending in -termes?
     

    They don't, just the vast majority of them.

    Termite scientists are a fairly conservative lot, and like patterns. Termes is a Latin word meaning wood worm. It is a widely followed convention that the genera of termites be given names with -termes at the end, but it isn't required by the rules of naming animals. Just makes things easier I guess. Some genera don't. This is because the taxonomist who authored them broke with convention. The best know of these is Zootermopsis, the dampwood termites of North America.

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  • 9. 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.

    Description:
    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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  • 10. I've found termites, what should I do?
     

    OK, so you've found termites.  Here's a quick step guide of what to do.

    1. Don't spray anything.  Spraying just makes the rest of  them go to where they're hard to find.
    2. Don't disturb them.  Often it is cheaper to control them if they are undisturbed.
    3. Don't panic.  Termites tend to work slowly, so you usually have time to act before things get noticeably worse.
    4. Read through these FAQ files so you have a good background knowledge.
    5. Don't call the first company you find in the phone book.  Take your time, find a good inspector get a written report, then work out what to do.
    6. Do fix up the things that attracted the termites in the first place.
    7. Do remember to have another inspection scheduled to make sure that things are really fixed.
    8. Do consider regular inspections so you can catch any new attacks early.
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