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Termites swarm when they are looking for new places to begin colonies. Left uncontrolled, these pests can cause extensive damage to houses and other buildings. (Photo by MSU Extension Service/Blake Layton)

Prevent termite swarms from settling in houses

MSU Extension Service

STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Mississippi State University entomologist John Guyton actually wears them on special occasions in a tie, and some people collect them for science experiments, but homeowners typically want nothing to do with termites.

Termites are estimated to cause $40 billion in damage to wooden structures every year. In the U.S., that figure is $2 billion to $3 billion, and several million dollars are lost to termites each year in Mississippi.

Guyton, an insect expert with the MSU Extension Service, said the Southeast is home to subterranean, Formosan and drywood termites. All of these species occur in Mississippi, where the most common type is the Eastern subterranean termite. A more recent threat has been the non-native Formosan termites, which were introduced into the U.S. at New Orleans after World War II.

Starting in the spring, termites begin to swarm, looking for places to begin new colonies.

“Termite and ant swarms look remarkably alike. Both are small, white-winged insects flying in swarms and, in the case of termites, often accumulating in windows,” Guyton said. “Most people will never see a swarm, but they will see termites accumulating in windows because they fly toward the lit window.”

Guyton said most termites swarm on warm and sunny mornings, often after a shower wet the ground the previous evening.

“These swarms can be dense enough to get your undivided attention,” Guyton said. “Of special interest are the Formosans that swarm at night by the thousands and can sometimes be seen under street lights. Homeowners in south Mississippi may wish to turn off their exterior lighting if they see swarms under street lights since termites are attracted to light.”

Termites can be confused with ants, but there are telltale physical differences. Termites have long, straight antennae, while ants have bent, or elbowed, antennae. Termite swarmers have front and back wings of equal length, while ants have front wings that are longer than the back wings.

Those looking for signs of termite presence often search for mud tubes coming from the ground up the foundation of a house.

“These provide the termites protection from predators while maintaining the high humidity they need,” Guyton said. “However, mud tubes are not always present. Termite infestations are actually quite difficult to detect until damage becomes obvious, and by this time, repair bills can be costly.”

In nature, termites perform the important service of recycling wood, leaf litter, dung and bones into nutrients, Guyton said.

“Termites exhibit a preference for soft, spring-growth wood and avoid hardwood and chemically treated wood,” he said. “They break off and swallow pieces of wood that are then broken down and digested by protozoans, bacteria and enzymes in their hindguts.”

Termites’ favorite foods, by order of preference, are loose cellulose fibers, paper, cardboard, softwood and hardwood.

These food choices are bad news for wooden structures.

Blake Layton, Extension entomologist, said there are several steps homeowners can take to avoid or reduce the potential for termites getting into houses. Make sure the building is properly treated for termites, and be sure any additions are also treated. Do not allow mulch or leaves to pile above the slab and against siding, and prevent water leaks and moisture problems in and around the building.

“We have several highly effective treatments available for termite control,” Layton said. “The key thing to remember is that termite control is best done preventively, rather than waiting until one has damage or an infestation. And termite control is not a do-it-yourself project. You need to hire a professional pest control company to do this work.”

Find more information about termites and home protection in Extension Publication 2568, “Protect Your House from Termites.”

Released: June 4, 2015
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