Common Termites and Their Causes

Common Termites and Their Causes

Termites play an ecological role in composting decaying plant matter. They have a fascinating social structure and complex building and eating habits. African termites can build mounds as tall as a person. These resourceful creatures even grow their own colonies of fungi for food, and a queen termite can live and breed for up to 45 years. As a homeowner, you are probably thinking, “Didn’t know, don’t care—termites destroy houses.” And you are absolutely right.

Termite Life

Termites require shelter, a food source, a comfortable temperature range, and moisture. They thrive in tropical and subtropical climates. Termites are social insects with elaborate caste systems like ants. They possess what is known as swarm intelligence, which means they function as a unit and so can take advantage of food sources and ecological niches that individual insects could never exploit on their own.


There are five types of common termites: subterranean, soil-feeding, drywood, dampwood, and grass-eating. All of them consume cellulose in the form of plant matter. The two types that cause the most damage to human structures are the subterranean and drywood species. The subterranean termite nests in the soil and builds mounds with elaborate underground tunnels that connect the colony to their food supply. This supply can include your house’s foundation, or furniture, books, shelves, and even insulation and carpets. On the other hand, drywood termites live in the wood they feed on, such as dead trees or the walls of structures. These termites infest your house or furniture directly. They are tiny insects, but their mouths can tear off large pieces of food, which is how a few small, unassuming bugs can bring down an entire home structure.

When a colony reaches maturity, which could mean several million insects, newly mature males and females develop wings and set off to form a new colony and spread the population. This tends to happen in spring and fall or after the first heavy rain of the year. At this time, the females are often visible around doorways and windows in bright sunlight, which attracts them. When they find a suitable new home, their wings are shed and the termites begin to breed. These new colonies are usually nearby; in other words, they are likely still on your property or even still inside your home.

How to Prevent Them

You can take up the welcome mat by removing sources of moisture and food around the outside of your house and closing off access to your crawl spaces.

  • Eliminate sources of standing water: leaking faucets, pipes, A/C units or hoses, plugged gutters, or pools on your roof.
  • Use trenches to divert water away from your foundation.
  • Store firewood and lumber away from your foundation.
  • Recycle stacks of old paper and cardboard.
  • Don’t over mulch plants near your house.
  • Remove stumps and other plant debris.
  • Do not allow the wood of the house to touch the soil.
  • Clean, clear, and screen all vents into your house.
  • Seal off any entry points around pipes or cables.
  • Seal any foundation cracks.
  • Check fences, decks, and other wooden structures for damage.

Signs of Infestation

If you notice any of these signs, it’s time to call your local exterminator:

  • A swarm of small insects arising from the soil or roof.
  • Termite droppings in the corners of cupboards or drawers or in small piles below exposed ceiling beams. These droppings look like gray granules or pencil shavings.
  • Mud tubes on outside walls or in crawl spaces.
  • Damaged paint.
  • A hollow sound when knocking on solid wood.
  • Fallen wings from the swarmers; these are usually shed near the site of a new budding colony.

Little termites cause very big damage, and often by the time they make themselves known to you, significant damage has occurred. Call your local pest control service as soon as you suspect you might have a problem. These professionals have experience with the insects in your area and their preferred nesting sites. An exterminator can assess your situation and give you options for removal and repair. Termites can be devastating to the structure and foundation of a home, and make short work of it. If you suspect a termite invasion, act fast to nip the issue in the bud before the structural integrity.