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Subterranean Termite Facts
Subterranean termites come from the Isoptera insect order and have been in existence for millions of years. There are three different forms of subterranean termites. These are the reproductives (swarmers or alates), workers and soldiers. Each of these forms, or castes, have specific characteristics.
Subterranean termites get their name because they survive by living in the soil in colonies. They travel from their colonies in the soil to their food source (homes, trees, scrap wood, etc.) to feed and then return to their colony to feed it.
Native subterranean termite colonies can be very small with only a few hundred, (up to around 250,000 termites), or as is the case with Formosan termites, up to 10 million. Subterranean termites can be found in every state except Alaska. There are several different types of subterranean termites around the US. These are classififed as the Native Subterranean Termites and the Introduced Subterranean Termites.
The Native Subterranean Termites include the Reticulitermes flavipes, or Kollar termite, Reticulitermes virginicus Banks, and the Reticulitermes hageni Banks. The Kollar termite is known as the eastern subterranean termite because it is the most common species of termites found within the eastern United States. This is a widely distributed termite that has been referred to as the most economically important termite in the US. There are also other native subterranean termites that are very common in the southern states and gulf regions. The “arid land” subterranean termite is common from Florida to California while the “grass feeding” termite is found in South Texas.
The Introduced Subterranean Termites are Coptotermes formosanus Shiraki, or the Formosan termite. This particular species of termite is the most ferocious and aggressive species of termite in the US and is commonly referred to as the super termite. They live in colonies containing 1-10 million termites and have the ability to consume up to 13 ounces of wood a day, making them the most destructive subterranean termite found in the United States. Due to the fact that they need temperatures above 68F to survive, they are restricted to the southern and gulf coast states.
Subterranean termites will begin swarming in southern florida as early as January. As the temperature slowly begins to rise and the ambient temperature reaches 70 degrees f, they will begin their annual swarming cycle. Houston, Texas normally sees subterranean termite swarms in mid February. Dallas, Texas and Atlanta, Georgia in mid to late March. The northern US and western US normally sees subterranean termite swarming in early – late summer continuing into early fall. However, they have also been known to swarm anywhere from January to April after rainfall, as well. This will often make it hard to determine if they are flying ants or swarming termites.
For termite identification click here.
The reproductive (swarmer) termites may or may not have wings. After swarming, they break off their wings by folding them over their head. This makes crawling and searching for a nesting place easier. Reproductives are also known as “alates”, and they may be brown to coal black in color. Generally, their wings dont have noticeable veins and are clear to smoky gray in color. Formosan termite alate wings are normally yellow with fine hairs.
Before termites can swarm, the colony has to be matured which takes 2 to 4 years. After swarming occurs, the surviving males and females pair off and begin the nesting and mating process. This process will continue for years, which explains why subterranean termite colonies can contain several thousand termitesor several million in the case of Formosan termites.
The workers are close to the same size as the alates, if not slightly smaller. They are white to off-white in color and have no wings. While they do resemble soldiers, their heads are shorter and their mandibles are not as pronounced.
Soldiers are also wingless termites and their bodies are generally white to off-white in color, just as workers. However, their heads are pale yellow to dark brown in color with bigger mandibles than those of workers. There are some soldiers, depending on where they are located, that feature pear-shaped heads featuring a long front projection that traps enemies by exuding a sticky substance.
Subterranean termites must have moisture in order to survive as they easily become dehydrated and die. This is why they primarily live underground. However, they can live above ground if they find a source of moisture in an unexposed place. In addition to moisture, subterranean termites also need cellulose for survival. This is why they feed on wood, paper and other cellulose containing products.
In order to protect themselves while feeding or searching for food, subterranean termites create mud tubes that allows them to travel from source to source without being exposed to the elements. These tubes are created by the worker termites with a combination of saliva, soil, wood and other debris.
Due to the fact that subterranean termites need moisture to survive, outside, they are most often found in trees, some plants, firewood, mulch and scrap lumber.
In structures, subterranean termites can be found entering structures around plumbing penetrations, cement expansion joints, cracks, and other areas that give them access to the structure. Any wood that is in direct contact with the soil is also a prime target for subterranean termites. However, they have been found in aerial spaces where moisture is readily available, as well. Subterranean termites will build their mud shelter tubes as far and as long as necessary to get to their food sources. They can build “free standing” mud shelter tubes from the soil direct to wooden trusses and beams under pier and beam structures, or directly up the side of a building wall 15 – 20 feet. It was reported once that subterranean termites built a mud shelter tube up the side of a flagpole over 50 feet in the air to get to a wooden knob on top of a flagpole!
There are several signs to look for that will indicate an infestation. These include swarming, discarded wings, mud tubes shelter tubes and damaged wood. A thorough inspection with a good flashlight, a screwdriver and a sharp pair of eyes are all that you will generally need to inspect for subterranean termites. For more pictures of termite damage click here
Eastern Subterranean Termite swarmers(actual size – 1/2 inch)
Liquid non-repellent termiticide treatment using products such as Phantom, Premise or Termidor. It wont discourage termites from attacking, but the termites will survive up to 90 days after being exposed. This gives the termites time to “share” the termite poison and infect other termites within the colony. This leads to severe termite population “decline” and very good control for a number of years. Whether or not the products will actually kill a complete termite colony is still under debate by industry experts.
You can learn more about termite chemical soil treatments here.
Termite bait systems such as Advance and Hex Pro are the easiest to use and maintain. The termites feed on the bait and take the bait back to the colony to kill the most termites possible. Termite baiting systems also have an effect on the entire termite colony which surpresses their population and can eventually lead to death of the entire colony. Learn more about termite baiting systems here.
Bora Care can be used as a wood treatment to help prevent subterranean termite infestations.
The most common way to apply these termiticides is by applying it in trenches that go around the infested structure and/or foaming it into the walls. If the structure is on a slab or cement foundation, it may be necessary to drill into the foundation slab and inject the termiticide beneath it.
The termite baits such as Advance and Hex Pro that are being used to control termites have less chemicals than the other methods do, making them more consumer-friendly and a popular choice as well.
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