They don’t just buzz, annoy and sting. Termites chow down on a valuable asset: your house. And when those hidden, hungry explorers fill their bellies, humans have to empty their wallets to undo the damage.

Mike Potter, University of Kentucky
Dr. Mike Potter, University of Kentucky

“No question, without a doubt they certainly cause the most structural damage to a dwelling,” says Dr. Mike Potter, an entomology professor at the University of Kentucky. “Termites are really the ones that cause the most financial aggravation and worry to people.”

Termites routinely damage homes underground so the rot they cause isn’t discovered until it’s expensive. They’re pests, and you need to get of them. Here’s how to treat termites.

Termites: Tiny Insects Cause Big Damage

  • Nationwide pest control company Orkin says that each year, termite damage impacts around 600,000 American homes.
  • On average, a homeowner spends $3,000 on termite damage repair. American homeowners spend roughly $5 billion annually to control termites and repair termite damage.
  • The Centers for Disease Control says subterranean termites are the “most-destructive pests of wood in the United States.”
  • Annually, termites cause more property damage than fire and windstorms combined.

That’s even more impressive when you realize that large swaths of the country see virtually no termites at all. Termites heavily damage the Southeastern U.S., Hawaii, and California’s coast. A new pest, the formosan termite, invaded Texas and Florida beginning in the 1960s. But most of the country sees light to moderate termite activity; the northernmost states have little to no termite activity.

3 Types of Termites, Similar Preventive Measures

Termites fall into three types: subterranean, dampwood and drywood termites. Each has its own biology and behaviors, but treatments are the same.

Even if your house is 100 years old, you can take some of the same termite prevention measures:

  • Remove cellulose materials such as mulch, stumps and wood scraps from within 25 feet of the house.
  • Ensure adequate drainage surrounds the house’s foundation.
  • Don’t let untreated wood contact the soil.
  • Install screened vents on crawl spaces and attics to eliminate moisture accumulation.
  • Don’t stack dead wood near the house. That’s a termite buffet.
  • Have splash blocks for your spigot and gutters to eliminate the buildup of moisture around the foundation.

Have all those boxes checked but want to really be sure you’re warding off future infestations? Hire a professional to establish a preventive barrier.

Establish a Preventive Termite Barrier

So you’ve cleaned and dried up all the areas near your foundation, but your house still feels vulnerable? Call in the big guns. “A preventive treatment … is the most assured thing you can do to protect your home and protect against future problems,” Potter says.

Preventive treatments range from pre-construction chemical applications to chemical and physical barriers.

Pre-construction treatment

The Arizona Extension says pre-construction liquid chemical barriers are the industry standard.

Following a termite inspection, a termiticide is applied to the soil within the foundation footprint before concrete is poured.

Post-construction treatment

After construction, soil treatments around the wooden structures in a trench, dug 6 inches wide and 12 inches deep. Chemicals used in the trenching will either repel or kill the termites.

Physical barriers that prevent the movement of termites are getting more popular across the country, the Arizona Extension says. That’s generally because they have no chemicals associated that could contaminate the environment. They work as a pest management tool by keeping the termites from crossing the barrier and eating your house.

Physical Termite Barriers

  • Copper termite shields installed on the top of the foundation serve as a physical barrier, but can be expensive.
  • Stainless steel mesh can be established within the walls of the foundation or wrapped around pipe frontage.
  • Impasse is a brand of polymer plastic sheeting with an insecticide locked between the two layers of plastic. It is laid out in large sections along the foundation.
  • Sand can also be used to keep termites at bay. A 4-6-inch layer of uniform sand under the foundational concrete can deter termites.

All of these can some termite protection, but the persistent little creatures can still get inside. And it’s crucial to spot them when they do.

Spotting Termites

“Being able to know the signs of termites is the first thing,” says Potter. An article Potter wrote for the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension explains that seeing them is a sure sign.

  • If you see a winged termite flying around inside your home, he writes, you’ve almost certainly got a termite infestation — one that warrants action.
  • Those flying termites are called swarmers, and they usually appear in the spring. The winged insects strongly resemble flying ants, but they have a distinct tell.
  • Both flying ants and flying termites have two pairs of wings. A termite’s wings, though, will both be equal in size, while an ant has a larger pair in front and a smaller pair behind.

Look for Wings of Equal Size

So if you see what looks like a flying ant, but it turns out to have all wings of equal size, it’s bad news: You have a termite problem.

Finding them outside your home, though, isn’t a reason to panic. Swarms of termites flying from tree stumps or piles of dead wood in your yard doesn’t mean they’re also in your house.

But if they appear to be swarming from the foundation of your house, or from wooden porches or patios, they’ve likely moved in.

Other signs of a termite infestation are mud tubes up and down the foundation of the building, which the termites build to travel through.

Killing Termites: Liquid Vs. Baits

So all the telltale signs are there: the mud tubes, swarmers inside the house and maybe even wood fixtures that have been eaten away.

Maybe you had a pro come take a look, and the verdict is in. It’s termites.

Now you have to make a decision on how to get rid of them: liquid or bait termiticide.

Liquid Termiticides

Liquid pesticide is the traditional approach to termite control. This involves applying the product under and around the building. A liquid provides a long-lasting chemical barrier around the house, either with a repellent that keeps them away, or a nonrepellent-but-lethal chemical.

Unfortunately, it’s also invasive. Gallons of the stuff are needed, and it can require drilling and injection through porches, patios, and adjacent concrete around your house.

Bait Termiticides

Baits are less-invasive. By using small amounts of materials termites like to eat, the slow-acting insecticide is ingested by the termite, which then takes it back to the termite colonies, spreading the poison.

Baits are typically installed below ground around the perimeter of the building, usually in the form of a hollow plastic cylinder with slits on the side.

The termites that tunnel through the bait leave a colony-specific scent behind that draws more termites to the bait.

Bait systems also have drawbacks. The first? Getting termites to locate the bait. It could be months before the baits take effect.

Baiting can also be more costly. More visits may be needed to monitor activity and add or replenish slow-acting bait stations.

Fumigation

Fumigation is a very effective termite treatment, but also the most expensive. Credit: Armchairbuilder.com, CC 2.0

If the infestation is extreme, you may need the big gun of termite treatment methods: fumigation. In this treatment method, the home is covered by a huge, airtight tent. A precise amount of gas fumigant is pumped in, and left to work. It penetrates deeply into all parts of the home. Typically, the gas includes both an odorless active ingredient to kill the termites, plus an odorous ingredient to warn humans they should not be there.

Though the active ingredient does not linger, you must stay out of the house for at least 24 hours after application.

Cost of Termite Pest Control

If you’re a do-it-yourself fan, home supply stores sell termite poisons and baits for as little as $20 per gallon. As with any DIY project that involves poison, follow directions closely.

For those who hire a professional pest control service, the Arizona extension points out homeowners can expect an average liquid termite treatment to run between $500 and $1,800. They’ll carry an additional $80-$200 in annual renewable service agreements.

Termite baits tend to be more expensive, averaging $1,500, with an annual renewal fee that can be two or three times that of the liquid application.

And if you’re in the middle of a real estate transaction, fumigation is likely the way to go, with no long waiting period before it takes effect. Fumigation charges run $1-$4 per square foot treated, so a 1,000 square-foot house at $2 per square foot would cost $2,000.

Main image: Formosan termite alates, also called swarmers, captured on a sticky trap. USDA photo by Scott Bauer, CC 2.0