How to Identify and Control Termites

Protect your home from termite damage by learning what they look like and how to kill them.

Termites are historically one of the most attention-grabbing structural pests. They are notorious for the damage they do to wooden structures. Although most people are aware of the damage termites cause, it is rare to encounter this pest until you are suffering from a termite infestation. Because termites cause billions of dollars worth of damage each year, it is important to understand how you can protect your home from these destructive insects.

What Do Termites Look Like?

Due to similarities in their appearance, winged termites are sometimes confused with flying ants. However, if you look closely, there are obvious differences between these two insects. Here's how to tell them apart:

  • You can often identify a termite by looking at the antennae. Termite antennae are straight and made up of tiny bead-like segments, while ants have elbowed antennae without beading.
  • Termite workers are soft-bodied and light-colored while ants are hard-bodied and dark.
  • Termites have an abdomen that is joined broadly to the thorax, but ants have a waist that is more constricted.
  • Winged termites have front and hind wings that are equal in size, while winged ants have a forewing that is longer than the hindwing.

There are different termite roles that affect the appearance of these insects. These include: winged termites (swarmers), worker termites, soldier termites, and king and queen termites.

Winged termites have the job of starting a new colony. They can be male or female and range in color from pale yellow to reddish-brown to black, depending on the species.

Worker termites are wingless and white or creamy white.

Soldier termites are creamy white except for a darker, enlarged head that usually contains a large pair of mandibles. Soldiers do not have wings.

King and queen termites may measure as much as an inch long, while the other roles range from ┬╝ to ┬Ż inch in size.

Types of Termites

There are many species of termites, but the three most important termite species frequently encountered in the U.S. fall within the subterranean group of termites: the Eastern subterranean termite (Reticulitermes flavipes), the Formosan termite (Coptotermes formosanus), and the Western subterranean termite (Reticulitermes hesperus).

The Eastern subterranean termite is the most common and widely distributed termite in North America. It ranges throughout all of the eastern, midwestern, and southern states.

The Western subterranean termite is as abundant in the west as the Eastern subterranean termite is in the east. This termite is found along the entire Pacific Coast and eastward into Idaho and Nevada.

The Formosan subterranean termite is the most aggressive and potentially destructive species in the United States. This termite invades areas with more mild temperatures, like those found along the Gulf coast.

Signs of Termites In Your Home

Here's what to look out for if you suspect you have termites:

  • A swarm of insects coming up from the soil around your home.
  • Bubbling or cracking paint could be a sign of termite frass (droppings), though this may also be due to a moisture issue.
  • Mud tubes on wood beams, in crawl spaces, or on exterior walls. 
  • Discarded wings near window sills or in other areas of your home.
  • Drywood termites are easily recognized by tiny seed-like fecal pellets that accumulate in small piles below "kickout" holes from their gallery system, or cracks in infested wood.

If you are concerned about a certain area of your home, tap on the wood; if it sounds "hollow," you might have a termite problem.

Infestations can sometimes begin after your home has been through a hurricane or other strong storm. Silt and debris moved by flood waters can provide a bridge to allow termites to cross over bug barriers. Plus, storm damage can create termite-friendly conditions, like structural damage that allows termites access to your home, or wet, decaying wood that becomes a food source for the pests.

Termites vs. Carpenter Ants

Many people witness wood damage and are unsure if they have a termite or carpenter ant problem. HereÔÇÖs how to tell the difference: Carpenter ants nest in decaying wood. They do not eat wood; rather, they meticulously chew, creating an appearance of wood that has been planed and sanded. Conversely, damage done to wood by termites will appear chewed-up and layered.

How to Kill Termites

If you determine that you have termites, you'll want to act quickly to control them. First, you should correctly identify whether you have dampwood, drywood, or subterranean termites, as treatment for each group can differ. Subterranean species prefer to dine on soft woods. Drywood termites will eat wood that's virtually devoid of moisture, while dampwood termites prefer decaying wood where moisture is prevalent.

Termite control products, like Ortho┬« Home Defense Max┬« Termite & Destructive Bug Killer (not available in MA, NY, or RI), can be applied to the area where termites are feeding and used to create a barrier around the home against subterranean termites. It can also be used to treat woodpiles, foundations, tree stumps, fences, and other wood surfaces. Always follow label directions for use.

Termite Prevention

Eliminating moisture problems around your home is one way to discourage termites from settling in. If you have a woodpile near your house, consider moving it farther away and propping it up off the soil. Otherwise, seal any entry points to your home, like cracks in the foundation, where these insects can get in.

Termites can cause wood damage that undermines your home's structure. If you note any signs of their presence, be sure to treat them as soon as possible and take steps to prevent them from coming back. However, if termite damage seems extensive, it is a good idea to hire a professional. Careful, routine inspections will help you guard against further infestations.