Hey! Wanna have a little fun? Grab a shovel and go out to your back yard right now. Find an area with a little wood debris – a fallen log, a brush pile, a stack of firewood – maybe even a falling-down building, a rotting tree or a flowerbed rich in decaying wood mulch. Now dig up some of the surrounding dirt. See those little white bugs scurrying around? Those are termites. And what you’re seeing right now is just the tiniest tip of a gigantic iceberg, a few dozen representatives of a colony that could number in the millions – and they’re all crawling around under the soil below your feet, just waiting to getcha. Well, OK, not you specifically – in fact, termites don’t have any interest in people, and they don’t sting. No, instead they want your house, your outbuildings, your deck – heck, they’ll even go after your furniture if you give them the chance, as long as it’s made out of wood.

Each year in the U.S., termites cause billions of dollars in property damage, thanks to their incessant craving for wood.

Termites are a pest insect for sure, and one of the pests homeowners fear most of all. That’s because a single colony of termites can cause a lot of damage – according to the EPA, each year in the U.S., the pesky bugs cause billions of dollars in property damage, thanks to their incessant craving for wood. In fact, some researchers estimate termites damage about three times as many homes as those damaged by fire. And because of their habit of living underground, a lot of termite damage goes unnoticed until major building problems occur – like weak joists or studs or damaged trim and floors. One of the areas they love most? The wood sills that “hold up” most homes. The sills are located close to the ground, and for a hungry termite looking to dine and dash, they’re a perfect target.

Termites Are Part of Nature

Of course, as with most clouds, there is a silver lining, and termites are no exception. Like most “pest” insects, termites play a beneficial role in nature, and not just as a food source for birds and other critters (although that’s certainly one function). Termites help amend and restore soil by breaking down dead wood and decaying plant matter and by promoting the growth and development of tiny microorganisms that help build healthy soil. In fact, in this regard termites play a role similar to earthworms, creating fertile landscapes near their homes in order to provide themselves with a higher degree of protection and ongoing sustenance. The effects of termites are so significant, multiple studies have revealed that removal of termites can cause some plant species to completely disappear from that area, in addition to causing significant changes in the health and fertility of the soil.

That’s all well and good when termites restrict their munching to decaying matter. But when they encroach on your home, well, it’s a different story. The thing is, termites are, almost literally, everywhere; they’re found in every continent except Antarctica, and a single acre can hold up to 12 colonies. So unless you plan to move to a much colder clime, you need to find a way to protect your home and other property from the damage termites can cause.

Identifying Termites

About 45 species of termites live in the U.S., and they can be divided into three groups:

Subterranean termites are by far the greatest threat to homes and other wooden structures in the U.S. These termites live underground and build mud tubes to connect their nests to food sources (like your home or deck). This group includes the Formosan termite, which originated in China, builds especially large colonies, and is difficult to eradicate. Sometimes also known as the Formosan subterranean termite, this species is most commonly found in the southern states and Hawaii, but homeowners in all parts of the country should be aware of their potential to damage wooden structures. Even apart from the Formosan species, subterranean termites are common throughout North America, and since they come into your house from underground, you may overlook these pests until you see the damage that they’ve caused to wooden structures.

Drywood termites (sometimes known as western drywood termites) are another group of termite species. These types of termites live in dead trees and other dry wood, and since they don’t need the same damp conditions as subterranean termites, they pose a larger risk to hardwood floors, roof supports, and other above-ground house structures. What’s more, because drywood termite species don’t need to build nests in the ground like subterranean termites do, so their infestations are sometimes harder to spot. On the other hand, dry wood termites tend to form smaller colonies than subterranean termites, and are not as widespread, being mainly restricted to the southwest U.S.

Dampwood termites are a group of species that prefer wood with a high moisture content. This preference makes them far less likely to infest a house or other structure where the wood is dry or relatively dry.

The Life Cycle of Termites

Although the species of termite involved in an infestation has some bearing on how much damage they can do to your house, this insect’s life cycle also has an effect. As they mature, termites go through three main phases: larvae, adult termites seeking to form their own colony (sometimes called “swarmers”) and adult termites in a colony.

Termite larvae are termites in the earliest stages of life. After they emerge from eggs laid by the queen and tended by worker termites, larvae grow into three different types of adults: soldiers, workers, and swarmers.

The soldiers protect the colony. Workers gather food or care for larvae. The swarmers, however, are destined to become kings or queens of a new colonies. Only swarmers can reproduce, and after these winged termites emerge from the original colony (normally during the warmer spring months) a king and queen will pair up to start a new colony by mating and producing more workers and soldiers. When you notice termite swarmers, pay attention: it means a colony of the insects is located nearby, meaning that your home is at risk of a termite infestation.

Of course, not every tiny, crawly creature in the ground or even in wood is necessarily a termite. While squiggly white termites are pretty hard to miss, some termites can be brown or black, just like ants. Some ants, carpenter ants in particular, also grow wings and swarm to form new colonies. Carpenter ants can also live in trees and homes, just like termites (although they don’t cause the same type or amount of destruction as termites). But there are some differences. The easiest way to differentiate between the two: Ants have a pinched waist – kind of like they’re wearing a tiny insect corset – while termites have wider waists and a fairly elongated shape. Termites also have straight antennae while ant antennae are elbowed (that’s assuming you want to get that close). Since termites and ants can be so easily confused, it’s always best to get the opinion of a professional to make sure any treatment you use is on target.

Of course, not every tiny, crawly creature in the ground or even in wood is necessarily a termite. While squiggly white termites are pretty hard to miss, some termites can be brown or black, just like ants. And carpenter ants can live in trees and homes, just like termites (although they don’t cause the same type or amount of destruction as termites). But there are some differences. The easiest way to differentiate between the two: Ants have a pinched waist – kind of like they’re wearing a tiny insect corset – while termites have wider waists and a fairly elongated shape. Termites also have straight antennae while ant antennae are elbowed (that’s assuming you want to get that close). Since termites and ants can be so easily confused, it’s always best to get the opinion of a professional to make sure any treatment you use is on target.

Where Termites Live and Thrive

You know that saying, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire”? Well, when you see a few termites, that means you’ve got a big colony somewhere nearby. And if you can, it’s a good idea to find out where that colony is so you can determine if and how it needs to be controlled, and whether you might have an infestation in your home.

While some termites live in dead or dying wood, most live under the ground in massive colonies. As termites mate and multiply, the size of the colony expands, forming a vast network of individual nesting sites connected by tunnels. Mature colonies typically “house” from 200,000 to 2 million adult termites. Once the colony matures, some of the termites will leave the colony as “swarmers,” floating out on temporary wings to set up shop in a new location, usually pretty close to the original colony. Then a new queen and king burrow into the soil and begin a new colony, adjusting the depth of the colony to find the ideal moisture level and temperature.

Since the colonies can be so vast, completely eliminating them from your property is probably unlikely – and maybe not even desirable. That’s why most termite treatment programs focus on protecting your property and preventing termite infestations instead of locating every last termite and destroying it. And the first step in protecting your property is determining if – and where – the termites are getting in.

Signs of Termite Activity: Inspecting Your Property

Seeing termites emerge from a hole in the ground is pretty good giveaway of the location of at least one part of a colony. But that doesn’t mean those termites are infesting your home or other structures. A much better indicator: Tiny claylike tubes running up along your foundation or footers and leading from the soil to the structure itself. These tiny termite tubes are created to protect the worker termites from drying out as they move from the soil into your home, plus they protect the bugs from predators as they move from place to place.

Damaged wood is, of course, another sign. Wood damaged by termites has a sort of swiss-cheese appearance, and it’s very weak – often weak enough to be poked through with a screwdriver or a stick.

DIY Termite Treatment Options

Now you know you have termites – how can you get rid of them? Well, the most popular – and most effective – option is professional termite treatment. There’s a reason for that: termite colonies (subterranean termite colonies especially) can extend so far underground that only an expert can reliably eliminate them. At the same time, however, there are substances like boric acid and orange oil that you can use to mitigate an infestation, and some approaches that, used consistently, can repel termites from vulnerable structures in your home without the use of insecticide.

  • Cardboard traps: Cardboard is made of wood fibers, and you may be able to attract some termites by dampening some cardboard and placing it in an area where you believe termites may be active. Once the termites gather on the cardboard, they can be disposed of.
  • Nematodes: Beneficial nematodes are microscopic worms that act as parasites on a variety of pests, including termites. Once in a pest’s digestive system, nematodes release a bacterium that eventually kills the host. Working nematodes into the soil near a termite colony may be an effective termite killer, at least in the more superficial layers of soil.
  • Borax: Borax is a standby DIY treatment for termites and other pests. For example, boric acid powder or any sodium borate product (sodium borate is the salt form of boric acid) can be very effective, as boric acid fatally damages termites’ nervous systems. If you have the powder form, mix it with water and then use a paintbrush to cover wood surfaces throughout your home. Alternatively, mix borax powder or the soap product Mule Team Borax with water in a spray bottle and then spray your wood surfaces as a spot treatment. If you purchase a pre-made spray or termite control product, look for borax or boric acid as the active ingredient.
  • Essential oils: Substances such as orange oil or neem oil (the product of an evergreen tree that grows in India) can also help you get rid of termites. These essential oils kill insects slowly by preventing them from laying eggs or shedding their shells. The termites die after direct exposure to neem and orange oil, so focus on infested areas and spread the oil over any nests, any obviously infested materials, and all wood surfaces.
  • Diatomaceous earth: You can also use diatomaceous earth as an alternative termite control approach. This substance, is made from silica, and while it isn’t not harmful to humans or pets, it does damage insects’ hard shells and ultimately kills them through dehydration. To use diatomaceous earth, sprinkle it on infected areas and around the foundations of your home. It will kill current termites and discourage future infestations. Some experts recommend using food-grade diatomaceous earth (the kind used as a dietary supplement), as this is less harmful if inhaled, and non-toxic to humans and animals.
  • Household items: Some people also recommend using items such as white vinegar or cayenne pepper to control termites. Simply spread the vinegar over infested areas or sprinkle the pepper over infested areas to kill the insects. These methods are slower than other options, but also discourage the insects from returning in the future.
  • Termite bait traps and termite spray: Termite bait uses cylinders or spikes inserted into the ground to attract the insects. The bait is consumed and carried back to the colony where it’s regurgitated, infecting the colony. Termite baiting requires a lot of expertise for proper placement; professional-strength termite bait is used by many termite companies as part of a termite-control strategy. Termite spray and powder pesticides such as Termidor are also available for treating the soil as well as the structure itself. Again, professional-strength applications are far more effective in protecting your home and preventing termite damage.

Those are some things to try; not here’s a quick list of things not to try:

  • Fire: Naked and Afraid episodes notwithstanding, setting fire to a termite colony is not a good idea. Nor is it wise to try to burn them out (or smoke them out) inside a tree, your home or any other structure.
  • Motor oil: Dumping motor oil – used or unused – into the ground is another no-no. Not only will it not provide any kind of long-term protection against termites, but it also poisons the ground and can eventually leach into groundwater, not to mention kill off plants. Nor should you use it to treat trim, floors or other wood. Motor oil contains cancer-causing chemicals, so coming in contact with it or breathing in the fumes – not a good idea. Oh yeah, and it’s also illegal to dump oil into the ground.
  • Chemicals: Likewise, it’s not a good idea to dump bleach, household cleaners or copious amounts of pesticides or other chemicals into an area where you suspect termites are located. Some people see termites emerging from the ground in the spring, the first thing they do is dump a whole lot of pesticides in the area. But guess what? There are thousands more below the soil in an area where the pesticides aren’t reaching, Instead, you’re just creating an area of highly concentrated poison that can be dangerous and even deadly to kids, pets and wildlife (not to mention being really bad for plants and groundwater).

Professional Termite Treatment

As attractive as (safe) DIY options like traps or orange oil sound, the fact is that they may have a very limited effect on your termite problem. Even under optimal circumstances, only a small number of termites will be destroyed, leaving hundreds of thousands to take their places. Termites are tenacious, and that means they need a multi-pronged approach using specific types of products applied in very specific ways to truly provide protection. Professional pest control services that specialize in termites know how to locate colonies, assess damage, identify entry points and, of course, apply the best remedy to protect your home. Professionals usually use multiple types of treatments to target termites, including planting termite bait traps laced with insecticides (such as Termidor termite treatment) in strategic spots in your yard as well as using insecticides around your home. Depending on your home’s needs, some treatments use holes drilled into exterior walls to apply a chemical barrier inside your home’s structure, an area that’s not easy to access with DIY treatments. In extreme cases, a pest control company may opt to use sulfuryl fluoride or other fumigation agents as a whole-house termiticide.

The primary caution when using professional termite treatment: Be sure the pest control company you choose has the expertise and experience needed for termite treatments. Why? Because preventing a termite infestation requires a very specific skillset, and varying from recommended practices even a little bit is a sure way to provide inadequate protection – which means you’ll think you’re protected when really you’re not. And of course, it also means you’ll be spending your money without getting any real, lasting benefit.

Ongoing Prevention

Of course, it’s always better to prevent a termite infestation than to deal with the aftermath, and making your home unattractive to termites can go a long way toward keeping them out. The good news is that there are plenty of simple prevention strategies you can use to head off any future termite problems:

  • Make sure your gutters and downspouts work well and ground is sloped away from the house to prevent dampness around your building exterior.
  • Fill in any cracks in your foundation and thoroughly caulk, grout, or cement around openings where pipes and utilities pass through the walls.
  • Fix any leaky plumbing right away.
  • Keep brush, wood piles, and plants away from the exterior walls of your home.
  • Keep air vents unobstructed to prevent dampness inside.
  • Schedule routine termite inspections – typically once each year to make sure your home and other structures stay free from termite damage.

Termites can form new colonies at any time, so part of your prevention strategy should include periodic professional re-treatments. How often should they be performed? That depends on lots of factors, including the size of the colony, how close it is to your home or other structures, the product being applied and the expertise of the termite company performing the application. Some professional-strength products are designed to last five or seven years.

When to Call a Professional

This is the shortest section of all, because there’s a really easy answer: Since termites can destroy your home – which is probably your biggest investment – you should call a professional any time you see termites – even if they’re off in your back yard away from your house. Colonies can be huge, and that means a nesting site could be a lot closer to your home than you think.

Even if you don’t see termites, you should still have routine professional termite inspections to look for signs of termite activity and perform any necessary “spot” treatments. Ongoing treatments maintain that termite-free barrier around your home, and pretty soon, the termites who’ve been using your home as a 24-hour diner will get the message loud and clear: The kitchen is closed.