Growings On: Termites may be small, but they can cause big damage

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If left unchecked, termites can cause serious damage to homes.

Subterranean termites are found in every U.S. state except Alaska. Warmer climates lead to greater abundance and the associated infestation of structures.

Regarded as the most economically important wood-destroying pest in the U.S., they make important contributions to natural forest ecosystems by breaking down cellulose, the principle component of timber residue. When land is cleared for construction of residential and other buildings, termites may eventually threaten the wood used in construction because their natural food resources have been removed. Treatment and prevention of termite damage costs about $2 billion annually in the U.S. Georgia residents spend $200 million to 300 million per year for infestation control and damage repair resulting from termite infestation of homes and other structures.

Subterranean termites are social insects, living in societies comprised primarily of immature individuals. Colonies can contain thousands to millions of termites. In nature, subterranean termites are closely associated with the soil habitat where they tunnel to locate water and food such as wood, fallen logs and other cellulosic materials. Termites excavate galleries throughout their food as they consume it. They can completely excavate the wood interior, feeding along the grain and leaving little more than a thin, wooden exterior. Subterranean termites construct above-ground earthen runways, or shelter tubes, that protect them from the drying effects of air as well as from natural enemies, such as ants. Termites are very susceptible to desiccation (extreme dryness), and thus they are dependent on moisture sources.

Dr. Dan Suiter, Extension entomology specialist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, offers comments on the biology of subterranean termites and advice about their control:

“Border to border, the state of Georgia enjoys mild temperatures and more than adequate rainfall, which are perfect conditions for the growth of an abundance of insects, including subterranean termites. Georgia is part of what entomologists and pest management professionals refer to as 'The Termite Belt,' where termites are common and abundant.

Subterranean termites are the most common type of termite found in Georgia, and the yard of most homes in Georgia will be occupied by one or more related groups of termites, sometimes called colonies. They are called subterranean because they require access to moisture, which is most commonly found in the soil.

Termites eat wood, and because we build homes with a substantial quantity of structural softwood, it is not surprising that some homes may become infested by this hidden pest. Subterranean termites are persistent. They never stop looking for sources of food, and when they locate and infest structural wood, can do moderate to substantial damage if infestations go unchecked. It is therefore important that homeowners are aware of common signs pointing to termite infestation.

First, homeowners should be aware of what a termite swarmer looks like. Swarmers are male and female termites that fly in the spring each year — most commonly February to April in Georgia.

Soon after flying, swarmers lose their wings, mate and begin a new colony. Another important, outward sign that homeowners should be able to recognize are the telltale mud tubes that termites use to move between their soil home and the wood on which they are feeding. Termites build hollow mud tubes comprised of moist soil and their saliva to protect them from predators and from drying up. When mud- or soil-like tubing is found anywhere in or on the structure, where it should not be, there is a chance it might be the soil tubing made by worker termites to gain access to the wood in the structure.

Should homeowners suspect that their homes might be infested by termites, it’s a good idea to contact a local termite and pest control company for an inspection. Employees of Georgia’s termite control companies are trained on the nuances of termite control and are uniquely qualified to provide this service.”

Roger Gates is the agricultural and natural resources agent for University of Georgia Extension, Whitfield County. Contact him at roger.gates@uga.edu.

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