Termite Awareness Week was March 16 – 22, but homeowners should be vigilant all spring

Dead swarming termites

Dead swarming termites are seen clustered around this window. 

The hope of warmer weather and spring flowers raises our spirits, but along with the warmth of spring comes increased pest activity, including termites.

Subterranean termites are the most destructive wood-feeding insect in Tennessee, and even though they do their part to recycle dead and fallen trees back into the soil, Karen Vail, University of Tennessee Extension urban entomologist, reminds property owners that termites can also attack the wood, paper and other cellulose sources in a home. “The National Pest Management Association estimates that it costs the U.S. about $5 billion per year to repair and treat damage caused by these insects,” Vail said.

Construction site preparation, installation and cleanup determine some of a structure’s susceptibility to subterranean termites. “Many structures were pretreated with a soil termiticide before the house was built and, if properly done, treatment should provide at least 5 years of protection. At other homes, a professionally installed and maintained termite baiting system may detect and treat termites,” Vail explained.  “However, if wood or wood scraps were buried in the backfill, or under porches or steps, or if spreader boards or grade stakes were not removed before the concrete set, then termite food was left in place.” 

Vail reminds homeowners that the finished grade outside the house should slope away from the house to prevent water from collecting under the house.  Also, basement stairs or posts should not go into or through the concrete slab.

But what if the construction occurred before you moved in? Vail outlined these steps to help make a home less conducive to subterranean termite invasion after construction.

             1.    Reduce the amount of cellulose around the structure.

    • Keep a 12- to 18-inch bare zone next to the foundation and use inorganic mulches (pea gravel or river stone) instead of plant-based ones “near” the foundation.
    • Replace wooden landscape timbers with those made of other materials such as concrete or vinyl.
    • Don’t stack firewood against the house.
    • Keep tree roots from getting close to the foundation.

2.      Ensure the irrigation system is working properly. Hard water deposits on the foundation could indicate an irrigation problem.

3.      Repair outdoor water faucet leaks quickly.

4.      Keep crawlspaces dry by either using a plastic cover with ventilation or by using an encapsulation system.

5.      Wooden steps should rest on a concrete base that is at least 6 inches above grade.

6.      Allow at least a 6-inch zone that is free of wood, vines, insulation and other materials that wick moisture on the outside foundation wall from grade level (top of the soil) to the top of the foundation.

What do subterranean termites look like and how do I know if they are in my home? Vail says the signs should be easy to spot. “The termite swarm season will be starting shortly. Winged termites will fly, drop to the ground, drop their wings and search for a moist, protected area to mate and start their colony. In a home, the swarmers, or a pile of their wings, are often found on the window sill.”

The entomologist also said winged termites can be distinguished from winged ants fairly easily. “Termite wings are nearly equal in size and shape, but the ant’s front wings are larger than the hind wings. Winged termites have straight antennae and the ants are elbowed. The termite thorax is broadly attached to the abdomen, but in the ant the waist is pinched. In Tennessee, termite swarmers are typically dark brown to black,” said Vail.

Termite workers are white, soft-bodied wingless insects that travel above ground in mud tubes that are as least as wide as a pencil. When termites damage wood, they eat the softer spring wood and leave behind the denser summer wood giving the wood a layered effect. Mud should be present in the layers. Termite-damaged wood will be soft and allow a screwdriver to easily penetrate. Puckered paint may indicate termites are feeding below the surface, the entomologist added.

“You can search your basement, crawlspace or foundation walls for these tubes or other signs, or better yet, hire a professional to do so once a year,” Vail recommended.

If you do discover termites, Vail says it’s definitely time to call a pest management professional. Suggestions for choosing a pest management firm and termite control strategy can be found in the UT Extension publication Subterranean Termite Control.  You may download a free copy from the UT Extension publications website: https://utextension.tennessee.edu/publications.  Enter the name of the publication into the site’s search engine.

Vail reminds consumers not to be pressured into signing a contract with a pest control agency immediately. “Termite damage occurs slowly,” she said. “The amount of damage caused by taking an additional day, week, or month to make an informed decision is negligible.”

UT Extension provides a gateway to the University of Tennessee as the outreach unit of the UT Institute of Agriculture. With an office in every Tennessee county, UT Extension delivers educational programs and research-based information to citizens throughout the state. In cooperation with Tennessee State University, UT Extension works with farmers, families, youth and communities to improve lives by addressing problems and issues at the local, state and national levels.



Dr. Karen Vail, UT Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology,


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