How do you know if you have termites?

close-up of worker and soldier termites crawling along an earthen surface

The official start of summer is on its way. Throughout Queens, Brooklyn, Nassau County and the greater New York metro area, temperatures are comfortably warm, but not yet hot. Even the scattered cloudy days and showers we might get over the course of the next few weeks won’t put much of a damper on that. Unfortunately, the beginning of summer also means something else that’s a whole lot less pleasant for property owners in the region.

Insect pests – especially the dreaded subterranean termites – are up to their pain-in-the-neck old tricks again. They already started emerging from hibernation right as spring began, so they’ve had plenty of time to skitter through the foundations of structures in their quest for property-destroying nourishment. But how do you know for certain that your homes or properties are under serious attack and in need of termite control?

Let’s go over the signs you can search for to determine if you’ve got a serious problem – starting with the 3 most common.

1. Weak, hollow wood in property foundation and infrastructure
This is the big one: If you are looking over wooden beams and supports in any area of a property, be it the basement or the attic, and you see that they’re beginning to seriously weaken or have any exposed portions, the alarm bells should already be going off in your head. Immediately take a much closer look (because it may not be termites, but something is definitely wrong).

As termites feed on wood, they typically leave behind traces of soil or mud in the “feeding galleries” they create by consuming the material – long straight lines of hollow space along the grain where solid wood once was. The soil evidence comes from the mud tunnels termites create when they infest a structure to navigate it (which we’ll cover in a little more detail further below). Furthermore, according to the entomology department at the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, other major causes of damage to wood foundations or beams in a building don’t make those hollows along the grain. For example, black carpenter ants don’t feed in that fashion – though they can be as detrimental as termites – and water damage causes wood to soften and rot, which looks much different. Last but not least, the Environmental Protection Agency recommended using a flathead screwdriver to softly dig into the surface of exposed wood and look for hollow spots.

Medium close-up of wood chunk that has been damaged by termite consumption.Termite-damaged wood can be readily identified by the parallel hollows subterranean worker termites create along the grain as they eat.

Bottom line: If you see those feeding channels along the surface of weakening wood in your foundation or elsewhere in the house, you’ll need professional termite extermination as soon as possible. Beams or supports that far gone could collapse at any time, leading to serious infrastructure damage or personal injury.

2. Termite swarms
No one wants to see swarms of any insect, generally speaking. But if you see a swarm of alates – the only class of subterranean termites with wings, per the National Pest Control Association – emerging from any area of a property, this is a particularly grim indicator of termite presence. It means a colony of the pests exists within your property and is sending out alates to find other places to set up shop.

Now, this could go one of two ways: Perhaps the alates are looking for a new residence because they’re having trouble feeding on the wood in the structure, meaning they could eventually leave. On the other hand, it might mean that they have depleted their food source – and that’s big trouble because the damage they’ve already caused could be catastrophic to the property.

Even if you don’t see a giant swarm suddenly come out of a crack in the floorboards or somewhere else, it could still mean alates are around. Aside from actually witnessing their presence, the clearest sign of termite alates is wings that have been shed and left on windowsills or floors. This generally means termites have just entered the property, and quick intervention by licensed pest-control professionals can nip them in the bud before they cause too much harm.

3. Mud tunnels
As we briefly mentioned earlier, colonies of the subterranean termites common to the NYC metro (and much of the U.S.) travel through buildings via mud tunnels they’ve created. “Worker” termites, which comprise the largest demographic in colonies, spend most of their time either building these tunnels or….well, eating wood. The University of Florida’s Department of Entomology & Nematology notes that colonies ranging in size from 100,000 to 1 million or more make their way through infested structures using such painstakingly constructed systems.

How do you spot these termite superhighways? Look for thin tubes of light-brown soil running from the lowest point in the building along the surface of the foundation, including walls, floor joists, support piers and so on. Keep in mind that if you break open one of these tunnels and don’t immediately see workers (small, with cream-colored bodies) or other termites, it doesn’t mean your investigation is no longer active – they might just be somewhere else in the house at the moment.

Out-of-focus termite-damaged wood in left foreground, flanked by in-focus shot of a termite-built mud tunnel extending from a power outlet to the damaged woodTermites use mud tunnels to navigate through houses they’ve infected.

P.S. Don’t forget the subtle signs
Both entomologists and pest-control pros with significant termite experience will tell you that infestations – even significant ones – can go undetected for years. The indicators listed above are the red-alert warning signs that mean you need immediate inspection and extermination, but they aren’t alone.

Painted wood walls or other structures may appear to “bubble” if termites are present, as the NPCA pointed out, because they may be building tunnels under there but trying to avoid consuming the paint. Darkening and blistered wood, as well as piles of spoor that look vaguely like sawdust, stand out as other key signs.

Taking action when you see these small but notable signals of possible termite presence is always wise – it’s simply better to be safe than sorry! Contact Rudy’s Exterminating Company as soon as you see them, to learn more about our services, get some professional advice or schedule an extermination.