Termites: What to Know

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on January 20, 2023
4 min read

Termites are underground insects that feed on wood, frequently damaging homes and other buildings. Termites cause billions of dollars in structural damage, and every year home and building owners spend over two billion dollars on preventing and treating termite damage. 

Termites live in colonies of up to several million. The worker termites are about 1/4 inch long and cream-colored without eyes. They use chemical forms of communication to perform their duties. 

There are also soldier termites with large heads and jaws that protect the workers and defend the colony. The king and queen of the colony are brown in color. As adults, they are wingless, but they start their life cycle with wings so they can swarm to form a new colony.

There are over 2,500 different species of termites. They're categorized according to their habitats, including:  

Dry wood and damp wood termites. These termites live in decaying wood with various moisture content. 

Subterranean termites. Subterranean termites live in soil and wood that's connected to the soil.

Most termite species live in tropical regions of the world, but others live in temperate areas. There are approximately 41 species of termites in the United States, most of which live in the southwest. Termites need to live in dark, damp environments where they're not exposed to air. 

Termite colonies are complex, with one colony consisting of several million individuals and several central "headquarters." The headquarters are located near food sources and are connected through an extensive network of underground tunnels.

Termites invade your home from the soil beneath the structure. They can get access through cracks in concrete or through seams where the plumbing and electrical cords are run. Termites need to maintain access to soil to be healthy. 

Termite damage doesn't occur rapidly. It typically takes months or years for significant termite damage to occur. Detecting termite damage can be difficult because termite-infested wood often looks normal from the outside. 

Termites don't run around in the open like ants or other insects. They tunnel directly into the wood from the soil or travel inside "mud tubes" that they build from the soil, wood particles, and other materials. These tubes are often found in the following places: 

  • Foundation walls
  • Floor and attic joists
  • Cracks between boards
  • Crawl spaces
  • Sheetrock

If you find tubes in ceilings or upper levels of your home, it can indicate that you have an aerial infestation. This is usually caused by water leaks and is excluded from a termite contract warranty. Above-ground infestations require finding and fixing the water leak. 

Serious termite damage usually takes three to eight years. Termites feed on anything that contains cellulose, including: 

  • Wood
  • Wood paneling
  • Cardboard
  • Paper products
  • Paper covering of sheetrock or carpeting 

Some signs you may have termite damage include wood with hollow spots. You can check for hollow spots by pushing against the wood with a flathead screwdriver. You should also suspect termite infestation if you see winged termites swarm. Winged ants can be mistaken for termites, so you may have to look closely to tell the difference. 

Winged ants have front wings that are longer than their hind wings. Termite wings are the same length. Ant antennae are bent at a 90-degree angle, while termite antennae are straight or may droop.

Termites aren't known to pose any significant health risk to humans. However, they can cause extensive damage to buildings and paper-based objects within them.

Areas of moist soil around your foundation are attractive to termites. Modern builders take measures to prevent termite infestation, such as: 

  • Using a concrete foundation with a ventilation space between the soil and wood 
  • Eliminating wood debris during construction
  • Ensuring good drainage and a slope away from the foundation
  • Starting with a poured, reinforced, crack-free foundation
  • Avoiding wood-to-soil contact
  • Using treated wood for construction elements that are susceptible to termites
  • Installing a termite barrier before construction

There are no effective DIY options for treating termites. You'll need to enlist the help of a termite control company. Commercial pest control management companies have access to the materials and products necessary to eliminate termites. They do this through soil treatments or termite baiting stations. 

Soil treatments. Soil treatments are performed by applying termiticide (insecticide designed for termites) to the soil adjacent to termite entry points. Most soil treatments remain active for five to eight years under normal conditions. 

Bait stations. Bait stations eliminate active termite colonies by feeding them a toxic food source. Initially, the bait stations contain wood or other food material. The food is gradually replaced with bait that contains a slow-acting toxic chemical. The termites feed on the bait and take it back to the colony. 

There are several things you should consider when choosing a pest control management company to handle a termite infestation. Find out how long they've been in business and what their credentials are. Ask for and check references before you make a decision. Make sure the company has at least one certified and licensed pesticide applicator.

Don't panic if you find termite activity, and take your time choosing a pest control company. Termites take time to do damage, so taking a few days or even a few weeks to develop a plan of action won't make the situation worse. Ask for at least two or three quotes before you make a decision. Don't automatically go with the company that provides the lowest quote.

Ask for a written inspection report that shows current termite activity and a written plan of treatment that includes the chemical labels, price, and warranty. Don't trust a company that promises a "secret formula" for eliminating termites.