How To Spot and Prevent Termites from Causing Wood Damage

In a previous article, we discussed why termites eat wood. Specifically, we talked about how intestinal bacteria help termites digest the cellulose that is available in most types of wood.

The question is – given how harmful termites can be to home and property, how do you choose ways in which termites can be prevented from eating through and gutting your home?

From a common sense perspective, there are two parts to this. First, you must be alert about the telltale signs that there is either a termite infestation already or the conditions are ripe for your home to get one.

In this case, drastic measures may be called for. Second, it makes sense to treat or otherwise make your home termite-proof, which in many cases means using the right type of wood.

If you live in a termite-prone zone, both these steps are equally important.

As a first step, then, let’s figure out why and when you need to get serious about termite infestations at your place. This observation phase is critical to inform you about the requirement for immediate action in many cases.

Termites Swarm Onto your Place and the Damage Can be Severe

Termites on wood

One of the major problems with termites – as far as the average homeowner is concerned – is that they rarely show up in ones, twos, or even a few dozen.

The average termite colony houses anywhere between 60,000 and one million residents, and all they focus on is munching on and destroying your home’s structure from the inside out.

Oftentimes, the damage gets past the point of easy solutions well before you are even aware of what is going on.

In the US, for example, one in four homeowners are worried about about termite problems at their homes. Thirteen percent report an actual problem in the past year, and twenty two percent report structural damage from termites.

While these numbers may vary from location to location, it is evident that roughly one in five homeowners – anywhere in the world – are under the threat of suffering significant damage from termites at any given time.

How Quickly Can Termites Damage Your Home?

While they do eat many types of wood, termites do not bite through or eat metals, concrete, brick, mortar, or grout as these do not contain cellulose.

However, if there is some untreated or unpainted wood underneath any walls or barriers, termites will do their best to get to it.

They will look for cracks and holes in the materials they can’t bite through. Once they succeed in getting through, any untreated wood underneath is theirs for the taking.

Roof house damaged by termites

The bottom line is this. Unless you termite-proof your place and/or detect their presence in plenty of time, these chompers will eat through the average-sized home in a mere 10-15 years.

As mentioned, termites do not do it by eating all the wood away. They burrow through the wood leaving holes throughout, which over time weakens and eventually collapses the structures, causing the damage.

Amount of Possible Damage

In any given year, termites cause millions of dollars in damages. For example, in the United States alone, over 600,000 homes are impacted by termites every year, causing over $5 million in damages.

It’s important to note that this data refers to situations where the damage has mostly been done and detected after the fact.

In order to either forestall or reduce the impact, it is important to do two things:

  • Be extremely watchful to spot signs that point to a potential infestation – this will inform you if there is the need for an immediate “cure”.
  • Take steps to deter termites from being able to chew through wood structures in and around the property – this goes towards “prevention” as opposed to a drastic cure.

We will discuss each of these in turn.

Step A: Watch Out for Infestations or a Swarm

Due to the fact that termites often build colonies underground or close to the surface, they can be difficult to detect unless they have eaten up the infrastructure of the home from the ground up to the attic.

As discussed above, there is also the possibility that they have eaten through walls or other barriers by attacking the weak points at the joints to get at the wood.

Since it’s difficult to know what is happening at times, watching out for signs of infestations should be important.

Why and When Do Termites Begin to “Emigrate” from Their Colonies?

At least once a year, new termites are born. There are a number of reasons, and methods, that these next generations can begin to look for new colonies:

  • Once they mature, newborn termites will leave the nest to mate. These matured termites are called nymphs and when they find others to mate with, this begins a new colony.
  • Another way is if the colony is already begun, but is small, other termites will help the queen by providing extra eggs to expand the colony. These helping termites are known as “supplementary reproductives”.
  • A new colony can also form if there has been some type of natural disaster. For example, in the event of a flood, termites can get separated from their colony by being pushed through the tunnels with the overflow of water. The termites that survive will look for another colony with a queen. If it cannot find one, a new colony will form regardless and a supplementary reproductive will step in as role of the queen to keep the colony going.

Alates or Winged Termites Can Form a Swarm

Some of the newborns are designated to emigrate out of a mature colony to propagate and find a spot for a new colony.

In particular, a class of alates, or winged males and females, are born at a certain period every year – often around spring or summer.

Alate females or gynes shed their wings and become queens while males (kings) pair with the queens during their so-called nuptial flights.

Termite queen

Since they are looking for landing spots, the alates will look for sources of brightness and light.

This means one of two things – either they will be outside your windows looking to get in, or (an even more dangerous situation) there can be flying termites spotted inside your house that are congregating around exit ways like doors and windows.

Spotting Infestations or Swarms

If termites leave their colonies and are spotted walking around in good numbers or are seen following a natural disaster such as a flood, immediate action is necessary.

A similar situation occurs when winged termites that are spotted. There can be as few of 25 to 50 of the insects in a swarm – this may not seem like much, but it is in fact a very big deal in the following ways:

  • If the swarm is inside, that means that there is already a mature colony somewhere inside your house. A mature colony capable of producing swarmers has typically been around for 5-7 years, which may mean a million of them somewhere. You need to find and exterminate them before something bad happens to your foundations.
  • If the swarm is outside, be very aware that you need to figure out ways to block their entry. Once the few dozen gets inside, that’s when the reproductive cycle begins. And then, in a few years, you are looking at hundreds of thousands of them.

Calls for a “Cure” – Drastic Measures may be Necessary

If termite infestations within the home is established, contacting pest control may be a prudent step. If you wait a few months or years, it could be too late in terms of preventing lasting and costly damage.

There are two main chemicals used to kill termites – fipronil and hexaflumuron. They are used as baits. Termites carry them back to their colonies which then begin to die off.

Even in the case of spotting swarms outside, getting some advice about how to block entryways to your home and/or move termite foods away from the house may pay dividends.

In this vein, let us discuss options to “prevent” a possible crisis.

Step B: Preventive Measures

So far, we have discussed how to be alert and spot any signs of termite infestation. Now, let’s talk about what we can do to prevent termites from coming into our homes.

Let’s start with what termites cannot easily eat or digest without harm to themselves.

I Can Bite but I Cannot Eat

Unlike “soft”, “damp” or “rotting” woods, many building materials, does not suit the termite’s tastes or ability to digest. That includes concrete, bricks and certain types of woods.

Having said that, there are materials that termites are able to bite through given their strong jaws, even if they do not gain nutrition out of them.

If, however, they know there are sources of cellulose (like rotting or damp wood) behind such barriers, they will look to penetrate the wall to get to what they can eat and survive on.

For example, termites can bite through drywall as it is soft enough to penetrate, but they will only eat the paper layers on each side.

Termites are also able to bite through plastics, but they will not ingest those either. Termites are also known for causing damage to PVC pipes from time to time, with the promise of reaching food behind them.

To reiterate, none of the above materials or fixtures contain cellulose, so the termite won’t eat the material. However, in their quest to get at what’s behind, termites will bite through and can end up causing just as much damage.

How do you prevent this? Make sure that the wood behind is not falling apart, making it a delicious destination for termites.

How to Deter the Termite Part 1: Choose the “Right” Type of Wood

Teak wood

Certain types of woods are naturally termite resistant. The top candidate is teak, followed by redwood. Other woods that cut include walnut, mahogany, cypress, cedar, and Brazilian jatoba.

These woods have been found to repel termites, and even kill more than 75% of termites that attempt to feed on them.

A couple words of caution, however:

  • While these are all hardwoods, not all hardwoods are termite resistant, so its important to make the right choice.
  • In the case of certain woods in this group – for example, redwood – the power to repel and/or kill termites may decrease over time since the trees do not produce the allelochemicals (the main deterrent) as they grow older.

Given the above, pressure treatment may be necessary for a more permanent solution.

How to Deter the Termite Part 2: Treat the Wood

To keep termites away from damaging the home, be sure that any wood used has been pressure-treated and desiccated.

Pressure treated wood

Pressure treatment was specifically designed for this purpose – it helps preserve the wood from rotting and/or from containing fungus which can also weaken the wood.

From a termite safety standpoint, pressure-treated woods are treated with chemical preservatives that reduce the amount of cellulose and the moisture content.

Both of these factors make them unattractive to termites as food sources.

Furthermore, the treatment creates a chemical barrier on the surfaces of the wood which not only creates a natural barrier to termites, but certain chemicals that can kill them.

Scientific studies have shown that termites can only digest cellulose with the help of protozoa that live within their intestines.

These protozoa, if killed off, do not naturally regenerate. In such cases, the termites will continue to eat cellulose, but will then perish within a couple of weeks.

How to Deter the Termite Part 3: Choose Non-Cellulose Materials Other Than Wood

If it can be helped, use metals for fortifying the wood as well. Metal does not contain cellulose and therefore will not be a targeted meal.

If there is concrete, grout, brick, or the like be sure to fill in any crack that has formed. If a crack has formed call a professional to ensure there is not already an infestation.

Then fill those cracks in so there are no open doors for these silent destroyers.

How to Deter the Termite Part 4: Keep Wood and Mulch Away from Home, Fix Leaks

It is also important to be sure to keep wood and mulch away from the home, as this can attract them to eat that wood and then look inside for more.

Make sure the moisture is as low as possible, fix leaks in and around the home, and ensure that drains are draining properly and not towards the foundation.

If there are any tree stumps, have them removed. If firewood is used often, be sure it is lifted off the ground, dry, and away from the home.

Mulch beds are favorite hunting grounds for termites. Using pressure-treated mulch is a great way to reduce the risk of infestations. With the right chemical treatment, termites chewing on mulch will come to an untimely end.

The Final Word

Termites will look for raw, untreated, damp and/or rotting wood in and around your home. There is not much to be done about that.

However, as we have discussed, there are in fact ways to seek both prevention and cure. Being on the lookout for possible signs of an infestation is key – in extreme cases, it will call for drastic solutions.

What is equally important is to plan, choose the right types of woods, pressure-treat them wherever possible and take other precautions to reduce the chances of something growing into a major problem.

Alright, that’s it for this article, here are a few hand-selected articles that you might also find interesting reads:

Why Do Termites Eat Wood? Facts And Figures

Are termites attracted to light? Absolutely, but only a certain group of them.

Are termites hard to get rid of? Yes! But These Tips Can Help

Steve Foster

Mad about bugs and wanting to publish as many articles as I can to help educate people about these amazing beautiful creatures! For more info check out my about page

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