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still picture of two winged black insects, one on a rock and one on a small plant
Click on the picture to view a video of winged termites emerging in the spring preparing to take flight and look for a new place to start a colony.  Video: NYSIPM.

What Do Termites Look Like?

Because of their activity, you might think you’ve found an ant colony with its three castes. Look closer. Ants have three distinct body regions while a termite’s thorax and abdomen are not well-defined. Inside that ant colony are three classes or castes with three different jobs:

Workers

White wingless, non-fertile, soft-bodied, ¼ inch (6mm.)

Workers are rarely seen but compose the majority of the colony and are responsible for damaging wood.

whitish, wingless insect with large head lying on side against white background
Photo: NYSIPM. Click photos to see enlarged versions.

Soldiers

Non-fertile, white, wingless, ¼ inch (6mm.).

Soldiers bear enlarged yellowish heads and jaws, and protect workers.

8 beige insects with large orangish heads and black mouthparts against a blue background
Photo: USDA ARS Photo Unit, USDA Agricultural Research Service, Bugwood.org.

Reproductives

The dark-brown/black queens and kings are 3/8–1/2 inch (9-12.7mm.) long. Reproductives grow two pair of translucent wings for swarming in the spring. Later, the wings break off and become a tell-tale sign of a newly established colony.

A large number of black insects with opaque wings congregating on a wood and metal structure.
Photo: Curtis Wegener.  

Evidence

Another clue is termite tubes—long, narrow strings of dry mud created as sheltering tunnels on foundation walls, wooden posts, and building walls. These protected runways allow workers to move quickly from the food source to the underground nest.

Close-up of a vertical cylider of brown mud on the outside of a piece of wood.
Subterranean termites make tubes from soil particles, saliva and feces. These tubes protect soft-bodied termites from dessication.  Photo: NYSIPM.

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Should I Worry About Termites?

It depends. All wood embedded in earth or in cracked concrete cellar floors, wood flooring, and framework built on concrete slabs is susceptible. Termites favor areas around furnaces, chimneys, hot water heaters, and hot water pipes. If you suspect termite activity, inspect what you can, but always consider professional pest control technicians or building engineers. Probing soft wood with a screwdriver or awl will help determine the extent of damage. The appearance of winged termites suggests that the colony has been present for a few years, and a thorough inspection is needed to identify activity areas and resulting damage.

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Why Do I Have Termites?

Habitat. Termite diet is cellulose fiber, aka wood. Being sensitive to moisture and temperature, their preferred habitat is below ground level in old wood or tree stumps, or at ground level where a structure moderates soil temperature and humidity.

Termites are able to feed on above-ground wood in structures by creating mud tubes which maintain moisture and serve as bridges to these areas.

New termite colonies are formed when spring-emerging queens and kings mate in a small chamber they excavate in the soil or in wood. Workers hatch first to build the colony, raise new young, and feed the king and queen as well as soldier termites who are unable to feed themselves.

Workers and soldiers avoid sunlight. Queens can live multiple years and continue to lay eggs. It can take a colony several years to produce new winged termites that will emerge in spring swarms (February to May) to start the cycle over again.

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How Do I Get Rid of Termites?

Monitoring

  • Inspect closely if you have any reason to suspect termite activity.
  • Annual inspections of the foundation, inside and out, can help identify termite damage or locate mud tubes early.

Reduce attractive habitat

  • Reduce moisture sources near the wood, and place non-wood borders between wood and soil.
  • Keep the soil dry near the foundation by encouraging ventilation and drainage away from the building.
  • Keep lumber, wood debris, trees, and shrubs well away from buildings and building foundations.

Exclusion

  • Seal openings in both wood and cement.

Treatment Methods:

When an infestation has been confirmed, try to replace damaged wood and incorporate the above prevention strategies.

Various insecticidal treatments are available, and due to the risk of continuing damage, may have to be considered. Insecticides are more likely to be successful if integrated with other tactics. That's IPM! Insecticidal treatments include applications to soil, use of treated wood, baited traps which allow termites to return to the colony with slow acting insecticides, and use of insecticides applied directly to wood as a barrier. Hire a professional because, like any insecticide, it is imperative to use products safely and legally.

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