Termites in the Limelight

Since joining the Nebraska Extension office in Lancaster County a month ago, I’ve had a variety of questions regarding termites and termite control. My job is not to provide inspection or treatment services, but to provide information about termites and their management, so that homeowners can make informed decisions regarding hiring a pest control company to treat, as well as prevent infestations in the future.

The only termites found in Nebraska are subterranean termites. As their name implies, they maintain a connection with the soil by nesting primarily in the ground, or traveling in mud tubes from the ground up. Due to their cryptic nature, they are seldom seen; the damage they cause to cellulose materials, which includes wood, cardboard, drywall paper and cotton fabric, can remain undetected for years.

Homeowners typically discover a termite infestation in one of two ways:

  • When inaccessible areas of the structure are made accessible during a renovation or home repair, or
  • During swarming season, when winged termites emerge from hidden locations within the structure

It is safe to say, that neither of these events make a homeowner happy. Termite swarms in Nebraska are seasonal, occurring in the spring (April/May) and occasionally in the fall. During this time, winged reproductive termites, called alates, literally come out of the woodwork to mate and attempt a dispersal flight. They are not strong fliers and tend to get caught in cobwebs and window sills.

During the same period of time, swarming ant species often get mistaken for swarming termites. Winged termites have bead-like antennae, a broad waist and four wings of equal length and size. In comparison, winged ants have elbowed antennae, a slender waist between the thorax and abdomen and four wings of unequal sizes.

Termites & Ants

Left: Subterranean termite swarmers; Top right: Carpenter ant swarmer; Bottom right: Carpenter ant (Photos: Jim Kalisch, Department of Entomology, University of Nebraska-Lincoln).

Both termites and ants are social insects with hundreds of individuals in the colony, but the workers of termites appear very different from the winged, reproductive form. Termite workers are soft-bodied, creamy-white and possess no eyes. They forage and breakdown cellulose nonstop, consuming the springwood and leaving mud in the hollowed out galleries. Subterranean termites incorporate wood particles, debris, saliva and fecal matter to create mud tubes as a means of sheltering their bodies from the desiccating effects of the air. Occasionally when a mud tube is broken, a soldier termite will rear its mandibles, trying to protect the colony. I recently captured a video of three different subterranean termite castes taken under a digital microscope. Be sure to check it out!

Below are some of the questions I’ve received at the extension office in recent weeks:

Will wood mulch attract termites to my yard?

  • Mulch does not necessarily attract termites, but will provide conducive conditions for termites to maintain a high level of moisture and allow them to travel unnoticed into areas that may be part of the structure (i.e. crawlspaces, deck posts, wood siding touching the soil in the garden).

How can I have mulch around the house but minimize the risk to termite infestations?

  • If you must have mulch, spread it less than 2-4″ high and avoid unnecessary piles. Make sure there is clearance of at least 6″ from the bottom of the siding to avoid wood-soil contact and maintain a visual of the foundation. Keep mulch dry and prevent moisture from pooling along the foundation of the house. Check the downspouts, sprinklers, spigots, rain barrels and grade for leaks or flaws.

I found termites in my yard. What should I do?

  • There are a variety of pest management companies that perform termite work and many will offer a free inspection. Deal with reliable firms – consult the Better Business Bureau, check for liability insurance, ask for references, and comparison shop. Different types of treatments will vary in cost and liquid treatments differ greatly from baiting systems. Each company should write an inspection report complete with a map, which includes areas of active infestation, location of damage, where, how, and with what product the structure will be treated. For more information refer to the Subterranean Handbook for Homeowners.
Mud tube

Termites build mud/shelter tubes to travel to protected food sources. Photo by Jody Green, Nebraska Extension in Lancaster County.


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