The signs of termites

One of the most common questions people usually ask is what are the signs of termites? Understandably, early termite detection is vital if you want to prevent large scale damage to your home, of which a large colony is capable of accomplishing – in a few months. But if the colony is small, or if they are first starting out, it may be very difficult to detect their presence without the use of expensive acoustic or infrared equipment to probe the soil beneath the house.

A lot depends on the species involved. Different termite species have different ways in which they forage for food; some do it in much more obvious ways than others. But there are some general signs to look out for, although I caution once more that the modus operandi of termites may differ greatly from species to species. These photos below are the work of subterranean and drywood termites, the two main types of termites that account for most of the reported termite damage in urban/semi urban areas.

Termite damaged wood

First things first, termites (like Coptotermes and Reticulitermes) often destroy wood from within, leaving hardly any indication from the outside. As the photos below show, from the surface wood may seem solid, but from the inside, it has been riddled with termite galleries. If the wood is heavily damaged, it will crack or puncture easily (being hollow), but by then it’s too late to save the wood anyway (the wood will sound hollow when tapped)!

Termite damaged wood exterior

Above – Termite damaged wood often doesn’t show any, or little signs of damage from the exterior.

Termite damaged wood interior

Above – Termite damaged wood from the interior. It’s the same piece of wood as the one above. What a difference!

Nonetheless, thin cracks near the base of the wooden frame or beam, or the presence of soil aggregations as shown in the photos below usually suggest the presence of termites.

Signs of termites

Above – Sure signs of termites near the base of a stairwell. Look out for such soil or dirt accumulations.

Termite signs

Above – If the termite galleries run near the surface, cracks and fissures will often appear. This is another sign of termites, but it’s easy to overlook such small indicators.

Termite signs

Above – Signs of termites in the ceiling. Fissures and fractures usually appear first near the frame corners.

A common mistake made is to assume wood with holes in them as in the photo below, as being infested by termites. In my experience, termites do NOT bore such kinds of holes into wood. Drywood termites may create such holes to eject their droppings, but they are very tiny (kick out holes). These large holes are usually the work of beetle larvae, not termites. Termites do not bore nice looking holes in wood; they construct galleries and chambers, while eating the wood out in the process.

Wood borer beetle damage

Above – These holes are often wrongly described as termite damage. No it’s not done by termites, but by wood borer beetle larvae or some other bug. Termites do not drill such kinds of large sized holes.

Drywood termite signs

With drywood termites (like Cryptotermes species), one fortunate thing is the damage is often slow going and limited in extent, because their colonies tend to be small and grow very slowly. A large wooden beam may take 5-10 years to be degraded.

The common signs of drywood termites are the appearance of small fissures and cracks near the wood surface and tiny fecal pellets comprising their droppings (called frass) which they discharge from their nests; these pellets may look like granulated sawdust. Drywood termites can infest furniture and slowly destroy it, these photos of one of my old furniture bear strong testament to that.

Here are more details on the signs of drywood termites.

Drywood termite infestation

Above – A sign of drywood termite infestation is exposed galleries along the edges and corners of wooden objects. Over time, these may expand or become more noticeable.

Drywood termite sign of presence.

Above – Wood that caves in easily is one of the signs of drywood termites. Their tunnels and galleries are running directly underneath in this case.

Drywood termite droppings

Above – Drywood termite droppings are often found around the wood in which they infest. These fecal pellets are tiny, and akin to rough, granulated sawdust. Notice some of the large sized pellets there – These are their droppings (frass).

Termite mud tubes

The presence of termite mud tubes made of earth snaking their way across an exposed area is almost surely a sign of termites; many termite species do this. These shelter tubes are important highways for the termites and serve to connect them (from the moist soil) to their food sources, which are often in much drier areas. Termites can even go to the extent of constructing such tubes bridging wood and soil separated by an empty space.

Termite mud tubes

Above – Termite mud tubes covering exposed concrete, enabling termites to reach their food source.

Coptotermes termites love building such mud tubes and are able to infest a building many stories high with the help of these tubes. Such termite tubes are also a ubiquitous sight in tropical forests, although in these cases, it is often the work of nasute type termites.

Breaking open these tubes and seeing no termites is no indication that the infestation has stopped. Termites vary their foraging patterns according to their present needs and external conditions like moisture and temperature. Also, when they have finished eating out the wood in an area, they will abandon their tubes.

Termite mud coverings

Termite mud coverings are like mud tubes, except they cover a wider area. Some termite species build such mud coverings, especially those that attack live wood. A good example is Coptotermes curvignathus.

Termite mud covering

Above – Termite mud covering on a palm tree trunk.

Flying termites

Flying termites or termite swarmers are one of the termite signs, but only indicate that termites are nearby (not necessarily underneath your home). Flying termites often swarm after a rainy day following a dry spell, and these are fertile males and females looking for a mate. Don’t get too alarmed if you have flying termites; they could be from a nest quite far away. However, they could also originate from a nest right underneath your home, I’ll admit that. Termite wings scattered on the floor is one sign that termites are around.

Termite swarmers

Above – Termite swarmers or flying termites during a swarming event after rain.

Termite wings

Above – Termite wings left behind after a heavy swarming event.

One thing to note is the size of the swarm. Is it large? If the swarm is huge, it could mean there is a nest (or nests) near your proximity. On the other hand, a small swarm could mean these are strays from either 1) a small nest nearby 2) a nest far away. Termites are poor fliers and generally do not fly beyond 100 meters (328 feet) from their nest. Some species fly an even shorter distance than that.

It’s worth reiterating that there’s no reason to panic whenever you see termite swarmers. In those regions of the world where termites are common, hardly anyone bats an eyelid whenever this happens. Flying termites are only one of the termite signs, but denote nothing else conclusive, unless the species and nest location can be determined.