Termites get a bad rap. Without termites the earth would be covered with the carcasses of fallen trees. Is it their fault that they can’t tell the difference between a dead tree and your house’s framing? It’s that misunderstanding that allows termites to do so much damage every year. According to Orkin, “termites and similar pests cause an estimated $30 billion in damage to crops and man-made structures in the U.S.” each year.
These mostly hidden destroyers of wood homes slowly eat the structure of your house away until things start to fall apart under your feet. With a voracious appetite they are hard to find and expensive to treat.
So how do you know if you have termites? I’ll give you five surefire signs you have termites living in your home.
#1 Live Bugs
We all know what a moth and mosquito look like, but do you know what a termite looks like? Most people don’t know exactly. Was that a flying ant? Termite? Locust? Termites have some telltale signs that separate them from other bugs.
Drywood termites (the most common swarming swarming termites) have much longer wings than their body and a less segmented body with a larger waist than flying ants. Worker termites inside the wood are rarely seen outside a renovation, but if they are revealed they have a very light yellow, almost translucent) body.
For more details on identifying termites check out my earlier post What Do Termites Look Like.
One of the clearest signs you have termites is frass. Almost everyone has experienced this annoying phenomenon created by drywood termites on their floors somewhere. Frass, essentially termite poop, is ejected by the termites from imperceptibly small exit holes in the wood and falls to the ground in what looks like a pile of brown poppyseeds.
Frass is not always a sign of active termites since it can remain in the wood for a long time and fall out during a renovation or as the house shifts, but it is a sign that there have been termites in that area sometime. Frass almost exclusively comes from drywood termites.
Take pictures and note the area so you can call your pest control company and have them spot treat the area where the frass showed up.
#3 Rainbow Wings
When termites swarm and find a location to start a new colony they fly around briefly before dropping their wings and disappearing into the wood again. Termite wings typically have a translucent appearance with a slight rainbow coloring when exposed to light. The clear wings act like a prism separating the light into a subtle rainbow of colors.
Like many bugs, termites are drawn to bright lights so the most common place to find termite wings is on and around windows. Check window sills and meeting rails for these wings after a swarm.
Just so we’re clear, don’t think that a swarm is huge. A house with just a few colonies may have a swarm where just a handful of termites leave and form new colonies, but you can be certain that each swarmer is looking to start their own colony.
#4 Mud Tunnels
Subterranean termites are less apparent unless you are checking your home’s foundation and crawlspace, but regular inspections help prevent damage. Check the crawlspace to inspect for mud tunnels coming from the dirt up to the wood.
These tunnels can be quite small measuring less than an inch wide, but as colonies grow larger there can be multiple tunnels creating a network of super highways for the termites to get from the dirt, where they receive their source of water, to your home where they get their food.
Tunnels are often found on the masonry piers below the wood framing, but if your home has wood members directly on the dirt then these tunnels may not be visible, so try to avoid wood in direct contact with dirt.
#5 Hollow Wood
Termites are tricky. They will typically eat right up to the surface of the wood, but not through the surface preferring to stay hidden safely below and out of sight. This makes it almost impossible to tell by looking at a floor board or piece of trim if there are termites actively at work.
Using the handle of a screw driver to tap the surface of the wood in question can be a good way to detect termite activity. Solid wood sounds very different than termite damaged wood which can sound hollow, thin, or papery.
If you suspect termites in an area, tap around searching for termite tunnels called galleries. If you find some hollow spots (especially where frass was present) then you may have determined a good place to spot treat for termites.
Do You Have Termites?
These five early warning signs you have termites will help you determine the next steps, but that’s not the end of the story. The good news about termites is that they are easily treatable and in many cases preventable. Time is of the essence when it comes to termites. They won’t destroy your house in a few weeks or even months. It’s usually a process of years before serious damage occurs, but don’t let it go for long.
There are options like termite barriers, bait, and borate applications to prevent some types of termites. There are other options like whole house fumigation to kill every termite in the house and start fresh. Talk to your local pest control service about what options may be right for your individual situation. Just don’t lose hope.
Founder & Editor-in-Chief
I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.