The rhyme “April showers bring May flowers” might be more accurately written in Kansas to say “April showers bring Eastern subterranean termites.” The thought is less than heartwarming, but the first few warm spring rains often bring swarming termites out of the ground in search of places to build new colonies. Being on the lookout for them in and around your home could help detect the destructive insects before they do more damage.
An abundance of broken wings near your window or door can also be a sign of termites as the swarmers’ wings break easily.
Antennae, waists and wings are the key distinguishers between swarming (winged) termites and winged ants. For antennae, just remember that ants’ antennae have elbows, while termite antennae are straight. Despite their reputation for liking sugary snacks, ants have hourglass figures with thin, pinched waists, while the termite’s wood fiber diet has produced a thick, almost indistinguishable waist.
Only one caste of termites, the swarmers, actually has four equally sized wings. (The other castes are wingless). On an ant, the two wings closest to the head are considerably larger than the two wings closest to the rear.
Worker termites are the ones you really need to worry about because they are ones that actually feed on wood, potentially causing structural damage commonly associated with the species. Soldier termites protect the colony with giant jaws that look like a lobster claw. Both workers and soldiers are soft bodied, creamy-white, wingless and eyeless. Soldiers’ heads are larger than those of worker termites.
Besides being on the lookout for swarmers, keep an eye out for mud shelter tubes and damaged wood. Spring yard cleanup is a good opportunity to take a look at your foundation, crawl space or other areas where termites could be hanging out. Eastern subterranean termites, the most common species in Kansas, need to maintain contact with the soil to sustain their body temperature and moisture needs. Mud shelter tubes connect wooden structures to the soil, allowing the workers to easily move between the colony and their food source.
Always have the presence of termites confirmed by a professional termite inspector or pest control operator before seeking treatment. The presence of swarmers is certainly not a direct indication of damage.
There is good news about termites: A mature colony only eats one-fifth of 1 ounce of wood per day. The real destruction occurs in colonies that are undetected for long periods of time. That one-fifth of an ounce, a seemingly small amount, becomes 4.5 pounds in a year’s time. A decade or more of feeding can be a serious problem.
If an inspector confirms the presence of termites in your home, hire a professional pest control operator to treat for the pests. Get more than one estimate for the work, ask for references (and call them), and only hire reputable, licensed firms. Read the written contract that a termite control specialist is required by law to provide to you, and make sure you understand the terms.
Costs and guarantees vary widely amongst pest control companies, but be wary of anyone who tries to push you into purchasing control immediately or suggests that your house may collapse overnight.
Do-it-yourselfers will do better to hire a professional to deal with termites. Professional pest control operators can acquire tools, products and training that are not available to most homeowners. Some of the products on the market for homeowners are simply a waste of time and money, and proper application is extremely important. Unless you are certain of the efficacy of the product and follow the product label to the letter, you take the risk of contaminating your environment and home.
— Jennifer Smith is the Douglas County Extension Agent – Horticulture for K-State Research and Extension and can be reached at 843-7058.