Subterranean termites can be scary for homeowners. Not knowing much about them or what the signs are, they turn to us as pest control experts to examine them closely and guide them through their options.
These termites are social insects, usually found in soil or wood, and have high moisture requirements, generally resulting in maintaining some form of ground contact unless special circumstances exist. They can penetrate structures through cracks less than 1/16 inch wide, giving them ample opportunity to penetrate any structure you will be inspecting. If a constant source of moisture is available (e.g. leaky pipes), colonies can exist above ground without soil contact.
A question I’m often asked is, “How many years does it take for a newly erected structure to show signs of subterranean termite infestation?” a few swarmers are produced. It usually takes longer to prove damage. However, if the structure is built over or near a strong existing colony, hawk moths can appear within a year. In this situation, damage can be noticed within a year since there is already an established colony.
A subterranean termite inspection attempts to find visible evidence of termite activity. It is a snapshot of conditions visible to you on the day of the inspection. Inspection does not guarantee that termites are not present, but it does give you an opportunity to look for termites in the visible parts of a structure. All structures have inaccessible areas, so being able to see everything is unrealistic. However, there are tools that we can use to determine if termite activity has occurred on a structure.
PREPARE YOUR TOOLKIT. As a termite inspector, you have a variety of tools at your disposal. Below is a list of common tools that can be used during an inspection. Depending on the circumstances, additional tools may be required. You should have any additional tools you prefer for an inspection to optimize your time.
Flashlights are probably the most important tool you need for both safety and functionality. A high candle power LED flashlight gives you the best visibility and allows you to see evidence of termite activity. You should always have spare batteries and a spare flashlight on hand in case the primary flashlight fails or is misplaced.
A hard hat or bump cap will provide you with head protection when you are in a location where you could injure your head during inspection. These are very useful in crawl spaces or other confined areas where the risk of injury is higher. As an added bonus, they also help keep cobwebs out of your hair.
Knee pads protect your knees immediately and for years to come. If you use good knee pads, they protect you from the screw that was missed in the cleanup. Using knee pads as a habit will also reduce wear and tear on your body and allow you to do what you love for years.
Using coveralls when conducting an inspection will help keep your uniform cleaner and you safer in certain circumstances. When you find yourself in a crawl space or other tight spaces, the coveralls provide an extra layer of protection. This will help reduce the number of cuts you receive and help you stay clean for the rest of your services that day.
With a probe (usually a screwdriver) you can get a “feel” for the wood and see if it has been damaged. This can be done by carefully examining each wood surface and checking for penetration. Do not hollow out the wood. It is unnecessary and devalues the service you provide. A screwdriver can be used to access other areas such as the crawl space, bathtub siphons and other access panels that would otherwise be inaccessible. The handle can be used as a sounding tool, allowing you to hear irregularities in the wood.
Mirrors can be used to see in areas with limited vision. They can usually fit in areas you can’t fit in or can’t see. You can shine a light on a mirror to change the direction of the light to improve visibility in certain circumstances.
A moisture meter can be helpful in certain circumstances to locate areas of high moisture content and allow for more targeted testing for underground termites.
Notepads are useful for recording observations. This can include evidence of termite activity, favorable conditions, inaccessible areas, damage, and anything else relevant to the inspection. In addition, an initial diagram can be made on the notepad for any future treatments that need to be performed.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so a camera is also useful for documenting observations relevant to the inspection, much like you would document in your service report.
READ THE SIGNS. Numerous signs can indicate that termite damage has occurred. While these are not indicative of current activity, they can show that a particular area has been infested with termites that are very likely still in the area unless treatment has taken place.
Mud hoses are probably the most recognizable sign of termite activity. These small mud tubes (about the size of a pencil in diameter) allow termites to move back and forth between their food sources, protect their colony from the elements, and maintain their moisture levels. The tubes are usually attached to a structure but can be suspended in the air much like stalactites or stalagmites. In other cases, they can be hung between objects to create a mud tube that looks like a suspension bridge. I’ve seen them come right out of the middle of cinder block walls. The lesson here is that you don’t always have to start from scratch.
Finding hawk moths in a home is usually quite annoying for a homeowner. Many of them panic because they think there is an infestation and their house will collapse because they don’t know what to expect from a termite swarm. Others think the alates are just ants because they don’t know. We need to be able to accurately identify the differences so we can give the homeowner the best direction. Moths are commonly found around a porch, door, joint in the foundation/floor, or on windows attempting to leave the house.
A bunch of wings is another sign that hawk moths have appeared in the recent past. This is especially true if a person has recently seen “flying ants”. Only finding wings is important, as termites strip off their wings shortly after landing and find a mate, while ants attach their wings. These are very commonly found near windows.
Termite castles are another sign that termites were present in a place. These look a lot like Mud Tubes, but you’ll find a cluster of them, and they’re usually a bit thicker than Mud Tubes. These are built around the time a colony releases hawk moths. It’s common to find these after the swarm occurs.
Finding damaged wood is another telltale sign of termite activity. This “wood” can be a door sill in the basement, a door frame, a box in the corner, or the picture frame someone just pushed off the wall. Termites don’t care where the cellulosic product is or what creates it. A less obvious sign of damaged wood is finding blisters or peeling paint that resembles water damage. Termites show up in some of the weirdest places you wouldn’t think doable. Do not dismiss the homeowner who describes finding something strange on the second floor with no damage on the ground floor. You may have encountered a problem that has been hidden for years and requires comprehensive treatment.
FINAL THOUGHTS. Because underground termites are the most common and widespread termite in North America, unless you live in northern states, the chances of you encountering them are pretty high. Knowing what to look for and what tools to use to protect yourself can be helpful when assessing a situation and helping your customers. Make sure you conduct a detailed inspection and be as transparent as possible with your findings. This allows customers to make an informed decision about what the next steps will be if termites are found and whether they want preventative treatment on their property.