COLLEGE STATION — Termites. The word strikes fear in any homeowner’s heart. But they are actually beneficial, downright necessary in fact.
Before you gasp in shock, think about this. According to Dr. Roger Gold, urban entomologist with the Texas Agricultural Extension Service, termites are one of the few animals that have the ability — with the protozoans and bacteria in their gut — to digest cellulose, more commonly known as wood.
“Cellulose is a very inert ingredient in the environment that is hard to break down,” Gold said. Termites are able to break it down and through their flatulence — yes, flatulence — they contribute significantly to the nitrogen so necessary to the air we breathe.
“And if it were not for termite flatulence, then we would not be able, as human beings, to survive on this planet. We don’t want to destroy all of the termites. They are considered beneficial except when they are in your house or my house,” Gold added.
Termites would be hard to get rid of anyway. Gold estimates that termites have been around on earth for 350 million years and are one of its most successful animals.
“Most people figure they must weigh about 12 pounds a piece because of the damage they can do,” Gold said, “but actually they are really very small insects. They have a social structure where they have kings and queens and soldiers.”
On the other hand, the treatments to get rid of them are expensive. An estimated $250 million is spent by Texans on repairs and treatments, he said.
There are about 2,200 species of termites in the world — 22 of which reside in the state. Three of these are considered serious pests of homes, buildings and furnishings in Texas, he said.
The most common is the subterranean termite, aptly named for its penchant for building its home in mud tubes in the ground. Even now, these are performing their mating rites through swarms brought on by late winter and early spring rains.
Subterranean termites are dark black and about 1/4 to 3/8 of an inch in size. Initially when they swarm, they have two pairs of transparent wings which they lose rapidly. The queen termite will quickly try to find a place where there is damp wood in contact with the soil.
Preventative treatments when a house is constructed will last about four to five years, according to Texas A&M research. Post- construction treatments can entail either traditional pesticides injected into infested areas of the building or through baits carried to the queen and other reproductive termites by workers.
The second is the Formosan termite. This is also a subterranean species, but it can build its nests above ground. It also has a voracious appetite and eat about four times as much as the subterranean termite.
An introduced species to the state, it has made itself quite at home in the Galveston and south Houston area, but isolated colonies have been found in Austin and Fort Worth. Gold said if homeowners or pest control operators think they’ve found a colony of Formosan termites, researchers would be interested in receiving some of the kings, queens or soldiers so Texas A&M University can plot their movement in Texas.
Formosan termites build what’s called a carton nest — pulling mud up into the structure itself. Control is a little more challenging, Gold said, because if the colony is cut off from the ground by a chemical treatment, it will continue to survive. Pest control operators have to rely on the bait technology or a chemical barrier in conjunction with fumigation.
The third species is the dry wood termite, which will move right in with you. It can devour furniture, cabinetry and wooden beams.
Dry wood termites are a little larger and lighter in color than the subterranean termite. They also do not have to have contact with moisture, so the homeowner might not see mud tubes. Control is a little different, too — usually a call to a carpenter to remove the colony and rebuild that part of the house will do it, Gold said. Occasionally, where there is a large colony and extensive damage, it may be necessary to tarp the home and inject fumigant gas.
“Termites are a major challenge to all Texans. Like I say, if you live in Texas long enough, you will experience termites in one form or another,” he said.