The Anatomy of a Termite: What Signs Do They Leave?

Termites have lived on Earth for more than 250 million years and are part of the ecosystem, helpful in breaking down rotting wood in the environment. When they get in your home, however, they can cause costly damage. They are not easily detected, and can do their dirty work long before a homeowner notices any damage. The best protection against termites in your home is learning what they look like and the signs of damage they produce.

In Massachusetts, the most common species of termites swarm on a warm day after a rainfall. Swarms may occur during the winter in heated buildings. Eastern subterranean termites (which are the most common form of termite in MA) typically swarm during the day from March to May. But regardless of these times, damage from termites can be discovered at any time of the year.

There are about 45 species of termites found in the U.S., each of which falls into one of the three main termite types – subterranean, drywood and dampwood. Each species has unique biology and behavior that impact what part of the country they live in, where they build their nests and their likelihood to damage homes. Massachusetts is at high risk for subterranean termites. But, many cases of drywood and dampwood termites are found each year in MA as well.

Subterranean termites live in the soil and build the largest nests of any insect in the U.S. Their nests connect to each other using channels called “mud tubes” which help protect them, hide them and also supply food. Food sources include trees, fence posts and structural timbers in houses. Subterranean termites, which can live in every U.S. state except Alaska, are responsible for the majority of termite damage in this country.

Drywood termites typically live in wood, such as dead trees, structural timbers or hardwood floors. Drywood termites do not require contact with soil to thrive, and they can also cause significant damage to homes. Drywood colonies tend to be smaller than subterranean termite colonies, so they typically cause damage at a slower rate. They are also difficult to detect, so substantial internal damage can be done before you notice any outward signs of damage to your home.

Dampwood termites live in wood with high moisture content. Most dampwood termites do not require contact with the soil, so they are rarely found in homes or other man-made structures, since wood in these structures typically does not have enough moisture.

To protect your home, you need to learn how to be a termite detective. The first step to identify termites is to recognize a termite as a termite. Many homeowners may fail to make this distinction. To the untrained eye, swarming termites may look like flying ants and worker termites may look like any insect larvae.

It is also recommended that homeowners in areas of the U.S. prone to termite infestation, such as Massachusetts, schedule annual inspections by termite control experts. This is very important since a house with damage from termites often looks the same as any other house on the surface. Termites can build nests hidden inside walls, causing damage for years before it becomes apparent. Termite control experts are trained to spot signs of termite activity, potentially before the colony has damaged the wood inside a home.

There are also some telltale signs of termite infestation you can look for. Subterranean termites may be detected by the sudden emergence of winged termites, also called swarmers, or by the presence of mud tubes and wood damage. A “swarm” is a group of adult male and female reproductives (i.e. termites that can reproduce and increase their numbers in your home) that leave their colony in an attempt to pair and initiate new colonies.

Large numbers of winged termites swarming from wood or the soil often are the first obvious sign of a nearby termite colony. Swarming occurs from mature colonies that typically contain several thousand termites.

When temperature and moisture conditions are favorable, usually on warm days following a rainfall, swarming occurs during a brief period of typically less than an hour. The pests then quickly shed their wings. Since they are attracted to light, you may find evidence that a swarm occurred indoors when you find wings in window sills, cobwebs, or on other furniture. The presence of winged termites or their shed wings inside a home should be a warning of a termite infestation.

Other common signs of termite damage include:

  • Discolored or sagging sheetrock on the ceiling or walls
  • Floors that buckle or sag
  • Loose tiles
  • Hardwood floor slats that pop up
  • Laminate floors that bubble up or sag
  • Tiny pinpoint holes in drywall (where termites have damaged the paperboard)
  • Bubbling or peeling paint
  • Damaged wood that crumbles easily
  • Jammed doors or windows
  • Wood that sounds hollow when tapped

Experts also are trained to identify termites by their behavior. Subterranean termites build mud tubes, which can be seen on a home’s foundation. Drywood termites push fecal pellets called frass through small holes they make. These pellets form small mounds near wood damage.

The pattern of wood damage also helps a pest control expert identify the type of termite causing the damage. Subterranean termites eat along the wood grain, leaving wood with a honeycomb appearance. Drywood termites eat across and with the grain, excavating large rooms connected by tunnels.