Signs of Termites

Purchase of a home is the ‘largest major investment’ they will make in their lifetime.  When buying a house have it inspected by a professional home inspector, you have to pay for this service yourself – make this investment.  If termite signs are detected the home seller must have the home treated and a termite bond issued upon treatment.

Termites hide deep in the wood, and they are very difficult to detect.  Hire someone with a good reputation who will take their time and look in every nook and cranny.  You have no choice in who the home seller contracts with, but armed with your own termite report, you can give the seller a copy to pass on to their pest control company.

Look for Termite Signs Yourself!

Take a walk around the outside your home and grounds – homeowners should do this once a month, just like replacing or cleaning your AC/ Heat filter.  Schedule preventative maintenance once a month – the first day of the month is an ideal time for this inspection.  While doing your inspection look for signs of termites (explained below in detail), also keep in mind that termites are so cryptic they can hide for years without you knowing.

In the United States termite damage is estimated to be 30 billion dollars – each homeowner that finds damage the cost will be about $1000-$3000 to repair.

Flashlight and Screwdriver – tools you need to spot the termite signs

find termite signs with inspectionArmed with a flashlight and screwdriver and maybe a small hammer homeowners can inspect their property to find where the termites are gaining access.  Don’t saw off a piece of wood or attempt to disturb a nest – this will only drive these pests inward to find more accommodating undisturbed wood.

With these tools, you can see and lightly probe any areas with wood to soil contact, wooden steps, porch posts, wood mulch close to the foundation, and wooden decks.  Take the screwdriver and lightly tap around where you suspect an infestation, there will be a hollow sound, accordion looking wood, or the wood will give a bit.

Do not engage in a self-fulfilling prophecy – which in this case, would be a prediction about finding termites.  If you think about too much you can talk yourself into anything – approach it analytically and systematically – keep focused on the signs you are looking for and do a complete search.

Tools for Professionals

  • termite tapperProfessionals use a tool call a termite tapper which they tap along the wood, if a different tone is detected they probe the wood with a screwdriver.
  • A moisture meter is another tool professionals use – if a high moisture content is detected there may be in infestation, also termites leave moisture trails as they crawl through walls and the meter detects these.
  • Boring a hole in a suspected wall with a Borescope and inserting a camera to get a look – but this method will put holes in your home and disturb the termites.
  • The fourth and better option is a motion detector that uses microwave technology to detect termites hidden below the timber, sheet rock, or masonry work which does not disturb the building or the termites.
  • Thermal imaging is also used on occasion.

Wood Damage

All termites eat wood, but it may be years before you notice termite wood damage to your home.  Eating wood is their job in the circle of life, they recycle it adding nutrients then redepositing it for a new better growth cycle.  When they munch on the wood in your home it’s a different story – termite live inside the wood they are destroying and can structurally undermine the integrity of your home.

If there are places in your home that you cannot go – like into an attic or crawlspace contract a professional to inspect these hard to reach areas.

Inspect all wood that is attached to your home including wood siding, eaves, fascia, porches, rails, trellises, and roof ends.

Sometimes the damage is significant – you will see large galleries taken out of the wood where termites have eaten it away.  When there is a lot of damage it’s usually in a place you cannot get to and don’t see often.

Other times you really have to inspect the wood very diligently to find damage or traces of termites.  Just looking at a piece of wood is not enough to tell if you have termites!  These pests are expert excavators and while eating can leave only a very thin layer of wood on the surface, when the layer is broken termites then cover the holes with a hard drying wood-mud-like substance.

Subterranean termite wood damage appears similar to water damage, signs you can see include buckling of wood, swollen floors, and ceilings, with visible mazes within the walls or furniture.  There may be an odor or mold or mildew, a scent that termite infections exude.

Drywood termite wood damage is harder to detect – they bury themselves so deeply into an infested item that the veneer will show signs of cracking and maze-like tunnels will become visible from beneath.

Wood damage will be along and through the grain, and the damage will be much slower than with subterranean termites.  The entire colony eats only 1/2 pound of wood a year.

While eating, the wood drywood termites push fecal pellets out of the tunnels and chambers which accumulate on the floor below the infested sections of wood.

Action to take when you spot signs of termites:

  • Take dead or dying trees off of your property
  • Remove new construction or remodeling debris
  • Examine tiny holes above where pellets accumulate
  • Check for water leaks and repair them
  • Remove the damaged wood and replace it
  • Schedule an inspection with pest control company

Termites don’t distinguish between the wood in your home and the wood in the forest to satisfy their nutritional needs.

Insulation Damage

Termites do not eat insulation, but they do tunnel through it, especially in ‘below the grade’ foam board insulation.  In areas deemed ‘very heavy termite infestation’ the International Residential Code prohibits the use of foam board below grade – unless there is a method to protect the foam board.

termite insulation damageFoam board is appealing to termites because it keeps them warm, affords shelter and a bit of moisture – they can live in prime conditions all the while destroying your home from within.  Options that give your insulation some protection are sand or ground stone around the foundation, and copper or steel flashing will make an additional barrier to infestation.

Spray on foam insulation is something else that termites love – it’s very easy for them to tunnel through the foam to get to the wood in your home, especially on ground level.  Not only do they burrow through it termites live in foam insulation because it is so easy to move through.

Termites easily tunnel through insulation exploiting this weakness, and making detection nearly impossible until either swarming or significant damage occurs.

Coating or waterproofing the foam will not keep termites out.  Researchers have concluded that termites do not eat the foam board insulation but they will tunnel through it.  Using the regular roll insulation (the pink stuff) for inside insulation instead of foam board or foam insulation may be your best bet.  It appears more difficult to tunnel through although termites will eat the paper backing.

Discarded Wings

termite discarded wingsDiscarded termite wings on your window sills, in spider webs or anywhere in your home can make the hardiest homeowner quake with fear of a termite infestation.  When termites swarm and fly out of their nests, they do so to mate and start another colony.  The majority of swarming termites will die before they reach this ultimate goal and discarded termite wings are not a sure sign of an infestation.

Termites usually swarm in the spring and summer months – the swarmers or alates are not strong fliers they will usually settle very close to the nest unless carried by the wind.  Upon landing, they dislodge their wings and discard them, find a mate and a cozy, warm, shady spot and start their own family.

The presence of these tiny wings is the only evidence of swarming.  There may be piles of wings by a window or table; they will look shiny and translucent like fish scales.

Swarming termites will not hurt you or bite you and don’t spray them with insecticide.  Vacuum up the discarded wings and call a termite professional to do an evaluation of your home.  You may also find dead of dying termites wiggling around; they will not survive long outside the nest due to dehydration – this being their maiden flight into a new strange world.

Mud Tubes

Subterranean termites use ‘mud tubes’ to get around, sort of like an enclosed escalator between the nest and a food source – the mud tubes keep them safe from the outside world while protecting them from predators and the environment.

Termite mud tubes are made of soil and wood and are about a pencil width wide; tubes are usually found around stone or concrete foundations and wood structures.  These tubes are how termites get into your home from below the ground.  If you should run into some, check and see if they are still active tubes.  Break the center section of the tube but leave the top and bottom sections intact, wait a few day then check back to see if the middle of the tube is rebuilt.

termite mud tunesIn a home with concrete walls, subterranean termites build their mud tubes in the crevices found around the foundation – termites easily exploit the gaps or crevices in the concrete or bricks.  Most homeowners never see or know these pests are there, and the only way a person will find out about termites in mud tubes is when replacing a cabinet or door frame.

Finding mud tubes means that there is an existing infestation in your home.  Termites only build these tubes when they have to, to get to a food source that is blocked by the foundation or concrete block.  This occurs when the colony is large enough to risk exploring to find greener pastures.

This photo from ‘’ is a perfect example of a termite mud tube from the foundation, over the concrete block and back into the structure.

Termite Mounds ( not for USA )

No species of termites native to North America builds a mound – so we do not look for termite mounds in our backyards.  The largest termite mounds are found in Africa, Australia and South America.

termite moundThe architecture of a termite mound is fascinating with the power of the colony these architectural marvels can reach 17 feet tall and support millions of termites.  Mounds are energy efficient and maintain the same temperature year round.  Scientists have studied termite mounds and have found the colony works together each doing their assigned jobs which creates a synergy and spirals into so much more than the capability of a few individuals.

They have no foreman or boss telling them what to do yet they are master builders, termite mounds yet ‘they are masters of construction, their sophisticated and innovative green-energy designs perfectly capturing the current trend for environmentally friendly construction.’

Termites live in vast complexes below termite mounds deep in the ground; they travel throughout the mounds to perform their tasks for colony survival.   Mounds are used for storage of fungi used for breaking down and consuming wood, ventilation, carbon dioxide release, and humidity control for the nests below.  The mound itself acts as a giant lung, as one of the most important functions of this structure is gas release – flushing out carbon dioxide and taking in oxygen.

Scientists study termite mounds to assist in solving problems of our world, termites rule in architecture, green energy, sustainability, humidity control.  Cracking the termite code will be a lesson for us which will teach us how to better live in our environments, and use natural resources without stripping our world of them.

Termite Noises

termite knocking

image by rentokil

Humans can hear termites in walls – they make noises, so if you listen very closely the sounds of their activities can be heard.

  • A clicking or rattling sound is audible from within the wall. Termites, when threatened or disturbed, will communicate that disturbance by banging their heads against the walls, causing a vibration the puts the colony on alert.
  • A rustling sound like paper being crumbled – this occurs when the termites tunnel close to the surface of the wood. The noise from them eating close to the surface of the wood is heard.

By putting your ear against the wood and listening in a quiet location or room, you can hear them munching.  Through history, people have documented the sounds they have heard coming from their walls.  They also munch faster when they hear rock music – It’s True, experiments show the munching doubles when rock music is being played.

Termites do not hear as we hear, vibrations are their way of hearing.  ‘Scientists at Australia’s CSIRO even think that termites can tell the size of a piece of wood by using vibrations to measure it from the inside — something even humans can’t do yet! There is still a lot to be discovered about these little pests.’

Sounds of tapping, crackling and popping are not so much from termites eating, but from the wood fibers in your home snapping as they munch through them.  When they crunch through wood, a small sound can be heard, and if you hear these sounds, you have a substantial infestation.  Take a glass put it up to the wall – this will magnify the sound, check the walls and floor slowly, and if you suspect termites have your home inspected by a professional.

Additional sounds termites make when they are swarming; this is a quiet flapping sound that you would not normally hear unless there is a big nest or multiple nests where termite exit in unison – the sound is almost inaudible.

Brown Pellets of Excrement

Termite droppings are one of the telltale signs of a termite presence in your home.  When termites tunnel into wood they push out excrement and it falls directly below where the ‘kick out’ hole is located.  Most homeowners confuse the brown pellets with sawdust and just sweep or vacuum it up without realizing there is a problem, but upon closer examination it become evident it is not sawdust.

brown pallets termite signsThe difference between sawdust and termite excretion is its shape.  The ‘frass’ or excrement will be granular and have six sides, although it will vary in color from a very light brown to a very dark brown according to the color of the wood termites are munching.  Frass is shaped like a deflated football or an oblong pea.

Termites keep their galleries (homes) clean by pushing the pellets out, and this is good news because this frass may be the only sign you see of a termites infestation.  It’s always better to know than not know if you have termites, it may be a shock at first, then you can have an inspection and decide what to do once you know your options.

Termite frass is a sign of a drywood termite infestation.  ‘If they are pooping then they are eating and you should either do an initial inspection yourself or hire a professional to assess how far they have gone, what damage has been done, and what next steps should be taken in terms of treatment. ‘

A great idea is to snap a picture of the pellets with your phone – then zoom in so you can get a better look at the shape of these pellets.  Yes, take a picture of the poop – you can also email the pic to a pest control company for further investigation.

Funny Fact:  ‘Believe it or Not… Some African tribes actually utilize termite poop as a dietary supplement because of its high magnesium content.’

Arboreal Nest

Arboreal nests are built in the branches of trees or on the trunk surface, and may be mistaken for wasp nests.  These lightweight nests are made from wood and fecal matter.  These tree nests protect the termite colony from floods, and termites can modify the shape of the nest according to their needs – climate and environmental conditions play a big part in the shaping of the nest.

aboreal nestTree nests are dark brown with bumps or lobes on its surface, and can grow to basketball size, but most of them are baseball sized.  Termites that build the arboreal nests consume damp wood on the forest floor; they create covered passageways (tunnels) to travel safely from nest to ground – without getting picked off by predators.

Signs of tunnels are a distinct characteristic trait of a termite and will help you distinguish a termite colony from a wasp or ant colony which appears similar high up in a tree.

Arboreal nests are found in Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama and many other Central American locations – because of zonal creep the nests have been spotted in Florida.  These pests live in lowland tropical habitats which cover rainforests to mangrove forests to savanna.

When you see an arboreal nest you can be sure that it is connected to a colony in the root crown of the tree, and is used as a home when there is ground flooding.

‘Arboreal termites are quite large, maybe 5-7mm long, and have a distinct dark head in most cases.’ – source.

Soldier termites that live in arboreal nests protect the nest by shooting out a stick thick chemical called nasute glue from their mouths.  The chemical can be very irritating to your skin especially to your mouth and nose – the excretion has a turpentine smell.  These termites bite!

Termites have been able to survive for over 250 million years. The highly structured nature of the colonies allows termites to adapt more to ever-changing environments.

Termites are considered the top threat to homes in the United States and if you see any of these signs in or around your home call a licensed pest control inspector to assist you in getting rid of them.  In addition to exterminating them a licensed professional can give advice about local pests and local and natural pest control.