Beautiful gardens by William Johnson
IN GENERAL, insects have a bad reputation – the vast majority either cause no harm or are actually beneficial to mankind. However, a few cause us problems. Among those that most homeowners dread, termites certainly rank at the top. “Know thine enemy” is key to winning the war against the worthy adversary.
Termites are more likely to be seen during spring as it’s the primary season when they are likely to swarm. However, termite season is really a year-round activity. Even though they are usually out of sight during most of the year, these unwelcome guests are still carrying out their mission. Most people do not become aware of them until they pull out some wood and find either the termites or the damage they cause.
A few simple precautions will help reduce the chances of subterranean termites turning your dream home into a nightmare. When they invade a home, hundreds, even thousands, of dollars in damage can occur. They often go unnoticed because you don’t see them crawling around. They do their damage inside the wood.
There are certain conditions that might make your home conducive to termite activity:
• Prevent soil coming into contact with brick, especially weep holes, siding or any type of wood-to-ground meeting.
• Do not stack firewood next to the house or garage.
• Check for rotten or decaying wood. Whether inside or outside, what looks like rotten wood could be termite damage.
• Check for areas around plumbing leaks that stay wet. Subterranean termites require a source of moisture and are attracted to wood that stays wet.
• Be sure that mulch does not make contact with bricks, weep holes, exterior wood, etc. This is very important and I’ve seen far too many cases of excessive use of mulch in such areas.
Any of these conditions creates an inviting and easy route for termites to gain access to homes. If you have any of these conditions, they should be corrected.
Certain indicators of possible termite activity should be checked by a termite professional as soon as possible. The first is the presence of “swarmers” or male and female reproducing inside the home. They look like flying ants and often collect near windows, glass patio doors and other sources of light.
Termite swarmers are most commonly encountered in spring. A few to several dozen can occur for a short time. Sometimes you only see them once and they die quickly. They are a likely indication that there is an active colony in your home.
The second indicator is the presence of mud “shelter tubes”. These are usually small tubes that range from pencil diameter upwards and have the consistency of a dirt dobber nest. They usually ascend ffrom the ground, up the side of a foundation to an exterior wood siding or to a weep hole in the brick.
Weep holes can be found on most brick homes and serve a vital structural function. I’ve seen termites, fire ants, roaches, crickets, earwigs, wasps, millipedes and other insect pests take advantage of this “open door” to what amounts to a great nest site inside wall voids where it’s warm, shady, moist and protected!
If you knock the termite shelter tubes down or crush them, the termites will build them back or construct other shelter tubes elsewhere. Fire ants also oftentimes construct shelter-like tubes to gain access to a home’s interior through weep holes, as shown in the photo above.
However, fire ants’ shelter tubes easily break down if poked with a stick or finger whereas termites’ tubes are hard and require more pressure to break apart. You cannot get rid of termites by destroying the tubes or by spraying an insecticide through the tubes.
If you have noticed any of these signs indicating the presence of termites, contact a termite control professional but do not panic. Termites won’t destroy your home overnight or even in a week – they work slowly.
You should, however, arrange to have your home inspected by one or more licensed pest-control companies. Most companies will inspect your home for termite infestation free of charge and provide an estimate for treatment if an infestation is confirmed. Pest-control companies are required to provide you with a disclosure statement containing the names of pesticides to be used, details of any warranties and other pertinent information.
Homeowners faced with dealing with a termite infestation will probably not be consoled when informed that termites serve a highly useful function in nature because they break down decaying wood, which returns valuable organic matter and nutrients to the soil.
In essence, these insects are recyclers of plant life. However, as long as we live in houses made of wood and its products, they will keep such dwellings on their menu list.
William Johnson is a horticulturist with the Galveston County office of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Visit his website at aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/galveston/index.htm.
As well as termites, fire ants are among the insects that take advantage of weep holes’ “open door” to a great nest site inside houses’ exterior wall voids. – Photo: Genevieve Benson