The scientific word for these voracious pulp-eaters is cryptobiotic: They're so good at hide-and-seek, you may not know they're there—but they are. The most common subterranean variety nests in moist soil in every state save Alaska.
While termites may be helpful in the forest, where all that munching dispatches dead stumps, when they move from the yard to your house, they can clean you out. And guess what: Insurance doesn't cover the damage. Here's how to avoid turning your biggest investment into an insect gut job.
Detecting Termites in Your Home
They're sneaky: Termites tiptoe through moist mulch and soil, while winged ones fly during swarming season—which is now. But they nest out of sight. An infestation may not come to light until you renovate or an inspector pokes around.
They overshare: Foraging workers leave the nest in search of food, often scored in a warm, humid place, like a poorly vented crawl space. They then return home to share the ingested goods, using a skill known as "the mutual exchange of gut contents"—gross, but helpful in distributing poison through a colony.
They've got a taste for...Foragers are drawn to decaying wood and plants, some kinds more than others, and warmed up if possible—a board under a leaking hot-water pipe, say.
They tunnel through the soft springwood, leaving behind the harder grain, making today's softer, fast-grown lumber a real termite treat. FYI: Several colonies can thrive in one house.
They eat nonstop: Chomping 24/7, they use moisture, sharp mandibles, and intestinal micro-organisms to turn cellulose in wood, plants, and even paper into food.
They leave evidence: Giveaways include spongy wood and narrow mud tubes, which termites make with saliva and bits of wood or drywall; if you break one open and see workers, you've got a problem.
Swarmers shed their wings before burrowing out of sight; if you find shed wings indoors, call in a pro.
They have complex social lives: An elaborate caste system doles out tasks: foraging; feeding and grooming other termites; shoring up the colony's defenses; and simply multiplying.
Once swarmers find juicy terrain and shed their wings, they start procreating to form a subcolony or a new one. It may take years to mature, and then it means trouble.
How to Keep Termites Out
Cut off their food and water: Store firewood at least 20 feet from the house. Maintain a 6- to 12-inch line between mulch or soil and wood parts of the house; foliage should be at least 3 feet away. Aim lawn sprinklers away from the foundation, and direct downspouts away from the house.
Take precautions: Don't bring home lumber unless it's been treated to turn off termites—most new boards have. Keep vents clear so dry air can circulate. Air out attics, basements, and crawl spaces regularly.
Go on the defensive: Fill or fix any entry points, from torn flashing to cracks in your basement's concrete. Monitor porches, fence posts, and sill plates for signs of termite interest.
Let down your guard? Hire a pro: Get three bids, check references, compare battle plans, and read the fine print. Liquid termiticides work by entering the foragers' digestive systems and moving through the colony when food is shared. It's an ugly business, but get real: This is your house, not theirs.
Need professional help controlling pests? Here are a few in-depth resources: