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Swarming Termites In Massachusetts and New Hampshire Part One

By Chris Williams on June 30, 2014.

Termite swarms

Winged termites

Termites damage books and paper

Sometimes termites damage more than just wood. Photo by Tim Chase.

Katlyn Graham:  Hello, I’m Katlyn Graham here with Tim Chace, a pest control technician and entomologist with Colonial Pest. Welcome, Tim.

Tim Chace:  Hi, Katlyn.

Katlyn:  Thanks for joining us today. We’re discussing termites and the theme you say this spring has been swarming termites and some severely damaged homes. What have you been noticing during the spring with the termites, Tim?

Tim:  This spring, we’ve had a robust warming season. Some years due to weather conditions that are strange and beyond anyone’s control, the termites don’t swarm as readily. This year has been a pretty good year for termite swarming and we’ve seen several areas that have had large termite swarms.

On more than one occasion, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing termites swarming out of tree stumps, mulch beds, actual basements, all over the place. There’s been quite a bit of activity and I think that’s related to the long hard winter that we had, those steady conditions. I think we talked about that in another podcast. Things that are able to remain dormant as long as possible benefit from that.

Katlyn:  I see. It was a long, hard winter for sure. Now, I’m sure some homeowners are listening to this and thinking, gosh, I wonder if I have termites. What should you look for if you suspect you might have termites in your home?

Tim:  That’s a great question. Due to termites’ cryptic lifestyle, they live in the soil itself. Their entire world is surrounded by little mud tubes. They actually create this out of their saliva, little bits of wood and their fecal material.

Termites want to bring this soil with them and keep their food sources moist. One of the things we look for is soil where it shouldn’t be, dirt out of place. If you’ve got little pieces of soil falling out of a part of your home, such as under a bookshelf…they construct their mud tunnels too in search of food. You may notice little earthen tubes coming up along the edge of a foundation.

Termites are small white insects that live in the soil. They can be seen if you’re gardening or working around the house under rocks or logs. If you move over a log and there’s thousands of little white things, there’s a good chance it might be termites. Although ants do have little white larvae, pupae, and other parts of their body that they carry around as well as the eggs. You might notice ants under a log, but typically, termites are bringing up a little bit of soil with them. That’s one of the things that we really look for.

Katlyn:  They’re white, OK. It sounds like you need to be on the lookout and really carefully look for these, or maybe bring in a professional who can do a termite inspection. When would it be good to do a termite inspection?

Tim:  Katlyn, there’s never a bad time to do a termite inspection. You’ll never know what you’ll find. Certain houses are more risky than others. If you have a very inspectable home, there’s not a lot of obstructions, you could almost do it yourself, just looking for anything suspicious and out of the place. Other structures are much more complicated and due demand a trained eye. In some cases, there’s not much you can tell until there’s some type of an event or something changes.

One of the thing we’re saying this year is the swarming termites that come out and drop their wings off all over the laundry room, or the downstairs, or even a second floor room. These, the small alates come out. These termites are actually black in color with four equidistant wings. They’ll come out and fly towards lighted windows. From time to time you’ll have a swarm but you’re not there, you just find a room where there’s lots of little opalescent wings all over the floor.

Katlyn:  Gross!

Tim:  Many people confuse swarming termites with flying ants. It’s a good time to take a sample if you’ve got some event happening. If the samples are cleaned up, the person that you call may not be able to tell anything has happened. I recently had a swarm in Bedford, New Hampshire. The entire basement was unfinished, and we were able to examine the entire perimeter of the cellar. There were no signs of mud tubes, absolutely nothing out of the ordinary, except for the fact that these little swarmers were all over the floor.

After about 45 minutes of exhaustively searching the entire area, we found about a two‑centimeter opening in one of the cracks in the floor where the floor had naturally settled. The termites had swarmed out of there by the thousands. These people had lived there for 26 years, no sign of termites or any other activity. No interesting landscaping features that would say, “Here, we’re eating wood all over your property.” It’s a mystery. In that case, we just recommended treatment.

Katlyn:  Definitely. They could come up through a crack in your floor. You would mention that they would leap behind dirt or soil. Is it a hill that they leave behind? What does a termite hill look like?

Tim:  The typical termite hill would be more related to some of the African species. In Australia, they make large termite mounds that are constructed in such a way as to heat and cool the colony and to actually be ventilated so they can regulate the humidity and temperature in there. That’s more of a termite hill, if you will. Swarming termites, however, will create what we call swarm castle. That could be a little pile of soil where the termites are swarming in the yard.

You could find a little raised up area. They would prefer to have a little bit of height as they take off. They’re very poor fliers. The swarming typically takes place in a warm morning with a temperature in the ’70s. It might have rained that night with some higher humidity. The soil would be a little bit softer. The termite workers spot these conditions and release the swarmers.

In some cases, the swarming conditions are just right inside your house. Let’s say, if you’ve got a sun room that faces south and the colony is in that area, they may determine that that’s just the ideal place to launch and come out all over the sun room. Like in this gentleman’s case in Bedford, the furnace was right there. It was warming up the soil underneath the slap right there. The termites did see a little laundry. There’s a little window in across of that. It wasn’t a cross basement, it was a full basement. From there, a little crack where they emerge, they could actually see the morning sunlight through the window.

Conditions were ideal for them that morning, and they all came out. When swarming takes place inside a structure, 99.9 percent of the termites actually die right there on the floor. You’re not going to get re‑infested by the termites, per se, but it is a good example of it, or a good clue that you do have a problem.

Katlyn:  Yes. If you have swarming termites, you do have a problem. When you mentioned thousands of termites coming out, how big are these colonies? How many termites are in the average colony?

Tim:  That is also a great question. Termite colonies begin with the first king and queen that starts with these swarming events. Let’s say we’ve got a log that’s down there and the termites have been feeding on it in the area. That might be a mature colony. It takes three to five years for a termite colony to produce the swarmers itself.

Katlyn:  That long.

Tim:  These swarmers don’t help the termite colony but promote the species, which is why there is so many of them. Most of the swarmers get eaten by birds and ants and toads and other things that eat insects. Any insects that eat an insect would just grab a termite right away and carry it off for food. As the swarming takes place, the kings and queens pair up. They use a mating pheromone to locate each other. It’s a very strong bond between these termites. Termite swarming wants to take place as simultaneously as possible.

The potential of meeting a termite from another family’s is what you want, you’ll have a stronger reproductive power. Sibling termites can still start a colony, but it’s not as reproductively strong as two individual colonies meeting and producing a new family. It’s interesting that they can actually pair up with their own family members if they have to. As the swarming takes place, the king and queen termite get together and try to find a successful spot to spend that first few weeks, if you will, maybe underneath a log or a wood chip.

Eventually, the colony goes down below the frost line and the water table, in most cases, and begins. As just those two start to make eggs, the first year, there might be 500, 2,000 little termites. The queen termite begins her life by expanding her abdomen just a little bit more. She becomes a little egg‑laying machine and throughout her life continues to lay eggs, which may be over 15 to 30 years, scientists believed.

Katlyn:  Wow. Their life span?

Tim:  Yes. During the time, the king and queen termite live together. In some cases, in extremely successful colony will produce secondary reproductives. There are actually females that are not the primary female, but they can lay eggs that will add to the colony’s strength. I’ve seen that on a few occasions. They’re funny‑looking, globular little girls. Kind of cute.

Katlyn:  [laughs]

Tim:  The termite babies themselves, when the egg hatches, it’s just about the size of a grain of salt. The baby termites are just about that big, too, but they’re absolutely just beautifully pearly white. Any insect or living thing that is that small I just think is fascinating. As they grow, they go through what’s called molting. As they grow through this process of gradual reproduction ‑‑ or gradual metamorphosis, as we say ‑‑ the baby termites are almost identical to the adult termites, with the exception of the swarmers. They grow wing pads and wings and leave the nest at the end.

This process, from egg to adult, takes somewhere between three and five months, it’s a long process. As the colony grows, depending on their territory, if they’ve got abundant food sources, they’ll respond to that by producing many, many, many more workers. If they’re under stress from conditions like heat, lack of moisture, lack of food, they’ll have much less reproductive potential there. A colony in a really good position has the ability to produce millions and millions of workers.

The swarm takes place after three to five years. The first swarm is a very meager showing, the next year usually more. Third or fourth year can go on for weeks and weeks on end. I’ve seen swarms that were just literally thousands and thousands of thousands coming out for over two weeks.

Katlyn:  Oh, gosh.

Tim:  That’s an indication that the colony is very mature.

Katlyn:  Very strong colony.

Tim:  Yes.

Katlyn:  Yes.

Tim:  Something like that, we would probably see more damage. I believe this house was down in Acton, Mass. Just a quick case history. They had bought the house as a redo, kind of a, “We’ll flip this house over, maybe put a renter in it.”

Katlyn:  [laughs]

Tim:  The carpenters came in and did their work and replaced a whole bunch of, as it turned out to be, damaged four‑by‑four beams, these just massive old beams.

Katlyn:  Oh, no.

Tim:  They were simply placed behind the garage.

Katlyn:  Oh, no.

Tim:  They did a real nice job putting the house back together, with the beautiful airy walk‑in, and it’s all lighted, and the big dining room and the big, beautiful hutch. Four weeks after this woman and her baby moved in, the swarm started.

Katlyn:  Oh.

Tim:  The landlord called Colonial Pest Control right away, and I went over to take a look at it, and it was a very complicated structure with a lot of changes to the foundation and very limited access to the spot where the termites were swarming. Due to that, I was very, very limited in what I could do to stop the swarming itself and explained that to everyone involved. We always leave it with, “Give us a call if anything starts happening.” We went down there probably four or five times in the next month because the swarming would continue, and the tenant would call the landlord and he would call us. During that time, I discovered through talking with one of the carpenters that in fact the whole beam that they took out was behind the garage.

The termites had been eating it for 12 or 14 years, that was very evident. We were also using the Sentricon system as our primary control tool at that house. Within a week, I was able to go back and inspect my stations because, having little to do to stop the swarming, I thought at least I’ll tell them that I’ve checked the system. The stations located on both sides of the front door were absolutely filled with termites. There’s been no swarming at that house for the last three years. Even though we couldn’t get in with chemicals and stop it, the termite problem was solved.

Katlyn:  That’s good.

Tim:  It was a tricky, dicey spring that year, as the swarming continued. As swarming goes on, it will take place until the last swarmer leaves. If there’s 32 of them and they all came out the first day, you won’t see it again till the next year. If there’s 32,000, they will continue to swarm until that 32,000th one is out the hole. That’s pretty interesting, too. They’re very persistent.

In Part Two, Tim Chace of Colonial Pest will tell you how to prevent termites in your home!

Termites photo by Ellmist at en.wikipedia Later versions were uploaded by Minesweeper at en.wikipedia. [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
Termite damage photo by Tim Chase

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