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Benjamin Hottel, Guest columnist Published 2:01 p.m. ET April 18, 2019
Eastern subterranean termite alates on the left and Formosan subterranean termite alate on the right.(Photo: Ben Hottel)
After a few months of cool weather during the winter months, springtime in Tallahassee can be a pleasant time to enjoy the outdoors before the hot and humid summer months arrive.
Even the honey bees are starting to enjoy the nice weather as they are starting to pollinate all of the pretty flowers blooming throughout the city. Unfortunately, there is another insect that is also starting to become active in Tallahassee, the Formosan subterranean termite.
In general, many species of subterranean termites are naturally found in the soil of forests where they feed on fallen trees. To these termites, our wooden houses are a buffet of fallen trees ready to be feasted upon. Subterranean termites cause an estimated $5 billion in damages and repair costs each year in the United States.
Ben Hottel(Photo: Leon County Extension)
These insects work together in colonies like honeybees, do but instead of getting nectar and pollen, they feed on wood. Wood seems a lot less appetizing than feeding on nectar and honey. Like honey bees who have a queen bee and workers, termites have a queen that produces all of the babies and workers to take care of the colony. Unlike honeybees, there are also specialized workers called soldiers who defend the colony from intruders.
Formosan subterranean termites are originally from China and were introduced into the United States in the 1960s. They have been established in Florida since the 1980s. Native species of subterranean termites, such as the Eastern subterranean termite, can cause damage to homes, but the Formosan termites can cause damage much more quickly than these native species.
The Formosan termites have larger colonies and are much more aggressive. If these termites are not eradicated from an infested house, they can destroy the entire house. There have been buildings in Tallahassee and in other areas of Florida that have been demolished because of extensive infestations of Formosan subterranean termites.
There are a few different signs of the presence of subterranean termites in a building. One of the signs that a building has an infestation of termites is the presence of mud tubes running along walls or other support structures in a home.
Subterranean termites like to live in moist environments like the soil and will construct mud tubes wherever they go so that they are constantly in a humid environment. Mud tubes can be found in crawl spaces under the home or even in the interior areas throughout the home. Sometimes mud tubes are hidden inside walls where they are not easily visible.
Because mud tubes are not always easily visible, the termite colony is sometimes able to grow to a large enough size before it is detected. The next sign of termite activity in a home happens when a colony has become mature enough to produce special termites with wings that will potentially become new queens and kings. These special winged termites are called alates. When conditions are right, these alates will swarm out of the colony and try to fly to a new area to start another termite colony. If these termites are from a colony that is in a home, they will swarm inside a house.
It can be pretty surprising to wake up one morning to find hundreds of alates flying inside your home. Once these alates mate, they will clip off their wings before trying to make a new colony. Sometimes you might not notice the alates flying around in your home but will find piles of wings by the window or in other areas of the house where the termites were flying.
Different species of subterranean termites swarm at different times of the year. Native species, such as the Eastern subterranean termites, swarm at the beginning of the year, but Formosan termites will start to swarm in mid-April and will stop swarming at some point in July. Formosan termites are unique from native termite species in that they will swarm at dusk and are attracted to lights.
Homeowners will occasionally leave their garage door open with lights on inside and attract these alates into their garages. The presence of Formosan termites in a garage doesnt necessarily mean your house is infested, but that the termites were attracted into your garage from a neighboring area.
If you discover that you have any of these signs of Formosan or other subterranean termites in your house, it is important that you contact a licensed pest control company to get your house treated. As a special note, many pest control companies in the Southeast United States are starting to not do termite treatments on homes that have spray foam insulation. This spray foam insulation can make your home more difficult to inspect for termite activity and the foam can absorb moisture which termites love.
If you would like to prevent your home from future termite invasions, there are a variety of options that a licensed pest control company can offer. Some companies will even offer contracts to pay for any damage termites cause to your home after a treatment has been performed.
Make sure to read all termite treatment contracts carefully so that your expectations are in line with what the pest control company is offering. Not all contracts will cover damages from Formosan termites. Usually native termite species are covered if they cause future damage in homes.
While all termites play an important role in recycling nutrients of dead trees back into the soil, this natural recycling process isnt welcomed when it also involves our homes. Being proactive in protecting your home from termites can help preserve your home over the course of ownership.
Benjamin Hottel is an Assistant Professor of Urban Entomology at Florida A&M University and is a volunteer writer for UF/IFAS Extension Leon County, an Equal Opportunity Institution. For gardening questions, email the extension office at AskAMasterGardener@ifas.ufl.edu.
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