Here’s How to Get Rid of Termites (Hint: You’re Probably Not DIY-ing This Gross Job)

published Jun 15, 2019
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Credit: Laura Hoerner

Property ownership isn’t without its expenses, but sometimes “expenses” means the cost of that new renovation you had to have… and other times there’s the unexpected cost of coexisting with other species. We’re certainly pro-peaceful coexistence, but it’s fair to prefer that the outdoors stay outdoors. Unfortunately, when it comes to pests like termites, the world is their playground.

According to Brittany Campbell, Ph.D., staff entomologist for the National Pest Management Association (NPMA), termites cause about $5 billion worth of damage per year. “They’re definitely one of the most destructive pests,” she says.

The NPMA created a Tiny Termite House to demonstrate just how much damage these unwanted tenants can do, and their findings can be solidly classified as alarming. But if you think you have termites, don’t skip straight to burning down your house for the insurance money. Take these steps before resorting to fire.

How do I know if I have termites?

One of the most common types of termite found in the U.S. is the subterranean Formosan termite, which is the one we’ll be addressing here.

Unfortunately, one of the best ways to identify a termite colony requires the existence a fairly large termite colony: Once a colony gets big enough that they need to expand, it starts producing a caste of termites called swarmers. These winged specimens fly out from the colony in order to look for new territory. You’ll likely spot them (or their discarded wings) around windows, since they are trying to get outside to explore and are thus attracted to the light.

Other early warning signs include damaged wood, especially in places with wood-to-soil contact. Anywhere that moisture and wood touch is a spot where termites can sneak in. Also look for paint that’s buckling or chipped away or “mud tubes” along a foundation wall, where termites have created a soil barrier in order to enter the structure.

What are termite castes?

Much like ants or bees, termites are social insects. There are four different stages of termite life, also known as castes, that work together to keep the colony going.

The most common stage is the workers. These are tiny, white-ish insects with similar coloration to maggots but with legs and the ability to walk around. You may have spotted workers if you’ve cracked open a log. They do the majority of the structural damage, since they’re the ones that do the feeding: They forage for wood and cellulose products, then bring the particles back to feed the soldiers and the queen. With thousands of termites all picking up wood particles, the damage escalates more rapidly than you’d expect from just a series of tiny bites; there’s strength (and wood damage) in numbers, after all.

Soldiers aren’t seen outside as much; they have darker head capsules and large mandibles used to defend the colony. You also likely won’t spot the queen out in the open, as her whole job is to lay eggs. Once she’s done her job and expanded the colony, the swarmers will begin to explore and hunt for a new space.

Could these annoying little bugs just be ants?

Maybe! But you probably won’t be able to tell without a microscope, as swarmers look similar to flying ants. Termites have four wings of the same length, while flying ants have different-sized wings. Ants also have a constricted body with a waist, whereas termites are unconstricted.

So… what do I do?

Call in the professionals. “Termites are not really a DIY job,” says Campbell. “It is pretty difficult, tedious work. The damage is often very hidden, so unless you really know what to look for it’s very hard to detect. Sometimes you can’t even tell there’s damage—there may just be a little mud.”

A professional will head into the crawlspace or other hard-to-access spots to fully assess the extent of the problem and cover every necessary treatment. Once they’ve established the situation, they may use a liquid termiticide around your home’s foundation to create a barrier or place termite baits.

Are you sure I can’t DIY my termite removal?

As an Apartment Therapy reader, you probably want to find a crafty at-home solution to your problems. But in this case, it really is best to turn to the pros.

“Honestly, even though I’m an entomologist and I have all this experience, I would not even want to do it myself,” says Campbell. “If you miss just a little space, a gap less than even an inch or a quarter of an inch, a termite can find those gaps and access the wood. If you don’t do that treatment perfectly, you’re going to cause damage to your house.”

These aren’t like gnats or ants that may have just wandered in to take a look around and have a snack. Termites want to move in full-time.


Yes, we know. We’re sorry.

So how do I prevent termite infestation?

Most termite types need two things: wood and moisture. Don’t combine the two or let them build up.

Since they eat wood and live in soil, the best thing you can do is eliminate wood sources from your home as much as possible. Don’t store firewood next to your exterior walls, for example. You also want to make sure moisture doesn’t build up around your foundations from low elevation or something like a broken gutter creating a pool.

How else can termites get into my house?

There is a specific and less common type of termite, known as the drywood termite, found in the Southeast as well as parts of the Southwest and California. They have a much lower moisture requirement, and can nest in dry wood. One of their common methods of home infiltration is via furniture.

If you don’t live in one of these areas but order, say, an antique dresser from a shop based in Georgia, there is a small chance that it may come with some unwanted guests. Don’t panic. “It’s not a super common occurrence, but if you see flying insects coming out or any type of damage in your furniture and you’re concerned about what that could be, it’s just something to know about,” says Campbell.

Inspect any pre-loved furniture thoroughly for damage and hitchhikers. If you do catch any, a pest control professional can easily fumigate the offending item or inject spot treatments.