Garden Variety: Spring signals start of season for swarming termites

As the days continue to warm and spring rains soak into the soil, Midwesterners should be on the lookout for swarming termites. For eastern subterranean termites, the most common and most damaging species in northeast Kansas, spring swarms are common and are the way that termites spread to new locations. Identifying swarming termites can help you locate existing termite colonies and potentially help prevent new infestations from causing substantial damage.

Swarming termites look very similar to winged ants. They can fly but prefer to venture only as far as necessary to start a new colony, so seeing them most likely means a colony is nearby. Swarms are only produced when colonies reach a certain size and weather conditions are just right.

Swarming termites can be distinguished from winged ants, which also swarm, by looking closely at their body shape and antennae. Ants have three distinct body parts with a very slender waist. Swarming termites’ bodies are closer to the shape of a cooked grain of rice (although they are a little larger) and are described as having a thick or indistinguishable waist. For antennae, termites’ antennae are straight; ants’ antennae have a bend or elbow.

Wings can also be a distinguishing factor. Swarming termites have two sets of wings that are equal in size. Winged ants have two sets of wings, but one pair is larger than the other. Wings may be shed after mating, so look closely at anything that looks ant- or termite-like.

When termites and ants swarm, they are commonly found in windowsills, doorways and other key entry points. A few bodies may only indicate that they have made their way there. A large number of bodies is a greater indication of the potential for an existing colony.

If a termite colony is suspected, look at the foundation of the structure. Ideally there should be some exposed concrete between the soil surface and the base of the siding, framing, etc. If termites are present, they can most easily be identified by the mud tubes they build to travel from their nest in the soil into the wood where they feed. Mud tubes look like they sound — like little hollow tunnels of mud extending out of the soil up into the siding or framing. Examine both the outside of the house and the crawl space, basement, etc. if present and accessible.

Professional pest control operators can also inspect for termites, identify found insects and provide treatment if the insects are found. If they are found, the most effective termite control options are restricted to use by professionals, so it will be important to hire someone at that point.

When hiring a termite control professional, always get more than one opinion (three is ideal), ask companies for references and avoid businesses that stress urgency or use a doomsday approach to termite treatment. Although the insects are destructive, damage occurs over a period of many years rather than overnight. You have time to make an informed, selective decision about who to hire and which method of treatment to use.

Winged ants inside a home are also signs of a nest in the crawl space or yard nearby the home. They are considered a nuisance pest and can be vacuumed or swept away.

— Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation.