Identifying Common Signs of Termites in the House

by | Mar 8, 2024

Termites are small destructive pests that can cause substantial structural damage before their presence is even discovered. They live within the wooden elements of your home as drywood or dampwood termites or beneath the earth’s surface as subterranean termites. Despite their small size, the real threat lies in their numbers. A single sighting often implies a nearby colony consisting of thousands, if not millions, of these wood-feeding insects. The structure of a termite colony is intricate and encompasses a queen, workers, soldiers, and reproductives which each play a pivotal role in the colony’s survival and expansion. With termite colonies that can grow indefinitely, termites are a massive threat to the integrity of any building structure.

Understanding and recognizing the most common signs of a termite infestation early can significantly reduce the potential for severe damage and the associated repair costs. Termites rarely leave visible traces of their existence until the damage has become extensive. However, subtle indicators can signal their presence which is why staying vigilant is so important for homeowners. The ability to detect these early warning signs is not only crucial for implementing effective termite control measures but can also save homeowners from the financial burdens of extensive repairs.

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How Do You Know if You Have Termites?

a group of termites

Termites’ digestive systems contain certain protozoa and microbes that help them digest cellulose into nutrients [1]. Due to this evolutionary trait, termites will seek out and devour the cellulose in wood. The sheer numbers in a developed termite colony ensures that termites are feeding 24/7, 365 days a year which can lead to potentially catastrophic damage over time. Identifying termites within your home or structure isn’t always straightforward though because they remain hidden for years while they feed [2]. Termite activity becomes much more apparent after the damage has already been done. Early detection is key to preventing extensive damage and preserving your property’s integrity and value.

To determine whether your property is at risk or already under the siege of termites, be on the lookout for the following indicators of termite activity:

  • Flying termite swarms anywhere on your property
  • Piles of wings left behind after swarms, often resembling fish scales
  • Mud tubes climbing the foundation of your home
  • Crumbling, damaged wood
  • Wood that sounds hollow when tapped
  • Small, pinpoint holes in drywall
  • Mounds of drywood termite pellets, often resembling small piles of salt or pepper
  • Discolored or drooping drywall
  • Peeling paint that resembles water damage
  • Buckling wooden or laminate floorboards
  • Tiles loosening from the added moisture termites can introduce to your floor
  • Excessively squeaky floorboards
  • Stuck windows or doors
  • Maze-like patterns in furniture, floorboards, or walls

Awareness and recognition of these termite signs can dramatically reduce the likelihood of severe damage. Regular inspections and prompt action upon noticing any of these signs are crucial steps in termite detection and management.

Live Termites

Discovering live termites within your home is a clear and unequivocal sign of an active infestation. These pests can remain hidden and often go unnoticed until considerable damage has been done. They may be discovered during home renovations when damage within wooden structures is accidentally exposed. Termites thrive not just within the wood they consume but also in damp or rotting wood around your property, in the soil, and in any cellulose-rich environment such as tree stumps and firewood piles. Their ability to exploit a wide range of habitats around your home makes them a persistent threat to the structural integrity of your property. Spotting live termites at any point is a big indicator that further inspection is needed.

Main sign of termites is hollowed out and damaged wood

Termites are notorious for consuming wood from the inside out and leaving little visible evidence of their presence until the damage is severe. This stealthy destruction often occurs behind the scenes, within the walls, floors, and even ceilings of a home as termites carve out long, hollow grooves in search of cellulose. These grooves can form intricate patterns that weaken the wood’s structure over time which can lead to structural damage.

Recognizing the damage caused by termites involves looking for subtle changes in the wood and structure of your home. Termites can damage not just the obvious wooden elements but also less visible areas that lead to sagging floors, papery or spongy feeling underfoot, and difficulty opening doors and windows due to warped frames. Even structures that do not directly touch the soil like attic beams and rafters are at risk which can become extremely dangerous if any of these supports are load bearing.

Buckling or Blisters in Wood Flooring

When wood flooring begins to show signs of buckling or develops blister-like spots, it may very well be signaling an underlying termite infestation. The damage inflicted by subterranean termites is often to the subfloor or the wooden supports that lie beneath the visible layer of flooring. These termites have a preference for softer wood. Unfortunately, subfloor construction is often made from these materials [3] which allows these termites to quietly cause destruction where it’s least likely to be immediately detected. The result of this concealed damage can manifest as discoloration of the flooring or a wavy, uneven appearance on the surface. These symptoms might be initially overlooked or attributed to moisture issues or natural wear and tear instead of termites, further delaying proper inspection and termite treatment. The challenge with identifying termite activity through these signs is that the damage has often progressed significantly by the time these visual cues become apparent.

Squeaky Floors or Loosened Tiles

Termites feasting on flooring or subflooring can lead to significant changes in the flooring structure of a home, including the loosening of tiles and the creation of squeaky floorboards. As these pests tunnel through and consume the wooden components beneath the flooring, they compromise the material’s integrity. This weakening of the structure can cause tiles to become loose as they become detached from their once-sturdy base due to the diminishing support from the wood below. Similarly, wooden floorboards can also become deformed which alters the floor’s appearance and increases movement of damaged wood against its fittings or adjacent pieces which can produce noticeable squeaking noises.

Stuck Doors and Windows

Red door stuck due to termite damage

Stuck doors and windows in your home can be more than just a minor inconvenience, they may also be early indicators of a termite infestation. As termites consume wood, their activity can lead to significant damage, causing the wood around window and door frames to shift which can make them difficult to open and close. Homeowners might attribute the stiffness of doors and windows to fluctuations in moisture or temperature, which can indeed cause wood to expand and contract. This can be partially true because when termites tunnel through and eat away at the wood, they not only compromise its structural integrity but also introduce moisture into the material. This additional moisture further contributes to the warping effect and exacerbates the difficulty in opening doors and windows.

The damage caused by termites to door and window frames can start subtly, with slight resistance when opening or closing, but can progress to the point where there is insufficient support for these structures which makes them nearly immovable. This type of damage is a clear sign that the termites have been at work for a while, as it takes time for them to consume enough wood to affect the frame’s shape and functionality significantly.

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Dipping Ceilings or Buckling Support Beams

The structural integrity of a building can be significantly compromised by a termite infestation, particularly when these pests target the support beams that support the frame of a building. Termites, through their relentless consumption and tunneling, can weaken support beams to the point of buckling and giving way. This deterioration not only affects the beams themselves but can also lead to more visible signs of damage like dipping ceilings and wall cracks. The damage caused by termites in these critical structural elements is not just a matter of aesthetics but a serious safety concern that poses risks to the stability of the entire building.

Repairing termite-induced damage, especially when it involves support beams and other fundamental structures, can be challenging and expensive. It requires exterminating the termite colony and restoring the building’s structural integrity. The failure of wood due to termite activity can lead to extensive renovation projects, as affected areas often need to be completely removed and replaced to ensure the home is safe and stable.

Mud Tubes

termite mud tubes

Mud tubes, or shelter tubes, are a distinctive hallmark of subterranean termite activity that provide a critical clue to their presence in or around a property. These tunnels are constructed from soil, termite droppings, and saliva [4] and are used as protective highways from the termites’ underground nests to their food sources above ground. Termites need a specific temperature and humidity level to survive otherwise they will dry out and die. These tubes help maintain a moist environment that shields them from cool, dry air. As a result, these structures help termites invade structures that are directly above their colony.

Mud tubes are typically seen under a home or around a home’s foundation as they bridge the gap between the soil and potential wooden food sources. These tubes are typically the width of a pencil and can be observed running up foundation walls, across crawl spaces, or even vertically down from attic spaces or joists in hidden, shady areas that are not exposed to sunlight and air. To determine if an infestation is active, a segment of the tube can be removed. If the damaged section is repaired or a new tube is constructed, this indicates the presence of an active colony.

Swarmers

Swarmers are the winged termites that are destined for reproduction. They emerge as one of the most conspicuous indicators of a nearby termite colony’s presence. These termites take flight en masse while seeking mates with which to establish new colonies. The occurrence of a termite swarm involves hundreds or even thousands of these flying insects near a property. This event signals that termites have likely been in the vicinity for several years and have expanded their colony to the point they need to expand and find new territory. Reproductives can swarm year round but they are often most active in the spring after periods of rainfall [5]. Each species exhibiting different swarming behavior. Some species swarm at night and are attracted to artificial lights, while others may appear during daylight hours.

It’s noteworthy that witnessing a termite swarm is unlikely, as these events are brief and infrequent, sometimes lasting only about half an hour once or twice a year. However, encountering swarmers inside your home is a definitive sign of an active termite infestation that indicates that a mature colony is not just close by but possibly within the structure itself.

Discarded Termite Wings

Discarded termite wings left after a colony was created

The discovery of discarded termite wings near entry points of a home, such as windows and doors, also serves as a significant indication of termite swarm activity. These wings indicate that reproductive termites have found a place to establish their new colony. After finding a habitable location, termites intentionally shed their wings upon landing as they no longer require them for flight. Discarded wings, while sometimes mistaken for those of flying ants, are a clear marker of termite presence when found in and around the foundation of a home or around access points like windows, decks, and patios.

Termite Holes

Tiny round holes in wooden structures are telltale termite signs. These holes are often no larger than 1/8 of an inch in diameter and are created when termites swarm to establish new colonies. These holes act as deployment points for swarmers, or flying termites, to exit their current nests. Once swarmers depart, these holes are sometimes filled in by workers to keep their colony sealed in to protect them from dry air. Other exit holes may be created by workers which are used to push out excess termite frass (droppings). The interior of hollowed out wood can only contain so much debris before workers create holes to discard unnecessary blockages. Look above piles of termite droppings to see if a termite pinhole can be found.

Termite Frass (Droppings)

Termite frass, or droppings, is a notable sign of a drywood termite infestation within a structure. Drywood termites reside and create their colonies within the wood itself by meticulously tunneling and consuming the wood from the inside. To maintain the cleanliness of their galleries, these termites expel their droppings through small openings near the entrances to their nests. Because drywood termites feed on wood, their excrement consists of digested cellulose which results in droppings that bear a striking resemblance to sawdust, ground pepper, or coffee grounds. These droppings can accumulate into noticeable mounds on surfaces such as windowsills or floors beneath the infestation sites.

The appearance of frass is a critical indicator of drywood termite activity and is often one of the clues looked for during termite inspections. Unlike their subterranean counterparts, drywood termites do not incorporate their feces into their mud tube construction. Instead, they dispose of it outside their living spaces using exit holes. This leads to the presence of a ground pepper like powder that appears in piles in the areas they infest.

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Damaged Drywall or Bubbling Paint and Wallpaper

Damaged drywall, along with bubbling paint and wallpaper, are another sign of termite activity within a home. Drywall is particularly vulnerable to termite infestation due to its paper lining because it provides a rich source of cellulose which is a primary food source for termites. As these pests tunnel through the drywall in search of nutrients, they leave behind discernible trails and damage that can sometimes be seen on the surface. Homeowners might also find pin-sized holes in drywall or wallpaper where termites have penetrated the surface. These tiny holes are often capped with a speck of dirt which is a subtle sign that termites tried to patch the hole to seal in the cavern behind the damage. The manifestation of bubbling beneath paint and wallpaper further indicates the hidden destruction caused by termites. This bubbling effect occurs as termites break through the surface and create an exit hole that allows air to bubble up behind a painted or wall papered surface.

Dark Stains on Walls

Dark stains on walls indicate the presence of a sub-nest built by subterranean termites inside the wall. These stains typically manifest as small, brown patches that result from termites finding an entry point into the structure and constructing a sub-nest from wet mud. As the nest expands, the moisture from the mud seeps through the plaster or drywall, causing a distinctive stain to appear on the surface. This process not only leaves a visible mark but also softens the plaster to the point where it might easily yield to pressure. If pressure is applied by a finger and it breaks through, there is a good chance that you have pushed through into the nest itself.

Moldy Scent

The presence of a moldy scent within a home can often be an indirect indicator of termite activity, particularly because termites thrive in environments where moisture levels are high. This preference for damp conditions means that areas infested by termites not only become vulnerable to structural damage but also to the development of mold which contributes to the musty, moldy odor. The smell is reminiscent of damp, rotting wood and can permeate the air in infested areas, which makes it a notable sign even when there are no visible indicators of termite presence.

When a scent like this is noticeable but its source remains elusive, it may be time to consider the possibility of a hidden termite infestation. This scenario warrants a thorough inspection by a pest control professional, as addressing the termite problem early can prevent further damage to the property and reduce the need for expensive mold remediation as mold can pose additional health risks and structural issues within the home.

Sounds Coming from Inside Wooden Structures

One of the subtler, yet unmistakable signs of a termite infestation is the sound that emanates from within wooden structures. Termites emit a quiet clicking noise that is the result of termite soldiers communicating alarm by banging their heads against the wood or vigorously shaking their bodies when they perceive a threat [6]. Termites possess a heightened sensitivity to vibrations and sounds so these clicks serve as a warning to the rest of the colony when danger is present. Worker termites also produce noise as they are notably loud eaters. This means that, in a quiet environment, it is possible to hear them as they chew through wood. For those with keen hearing, or inspectors using a stethoscope, these sounds can be easily detected

How Fast Can Termites Cause Damage?

Given their discreet nature and the hidden locations of their activity, the speed at which termites can cause damage to a property is often underestimated. The real danger with termites lies in their ability to consume wood indefinitely without being noticed. Despite their small size, the collective appetite of a large termite colony can lead to substantial destruction over a relatively short period of time. This slow but relentless damage accumulation can result in costly repairs by the time it is finally noticed. It is estimated that a colony with 60,000 termites can eat roughly 5 grams of wood every day [7]. That means that with enough time, a developed colony of subterranean termites with a million termites can eat roughly 66 pounds of cellulose every year. This is a substantial amount of damage that can be structurally debilitating if the damage is done to critical load bearing support beams.

When Should I Call Professionals About a Termite Inspection?

Deciding when to call in professionals for a termite inspection is crucial in both preventing an infestation and dealing with an existing one. While numerous DIY methods and home remedies claim to deter or eliminate termites, the reality is that these approaches often fall short when trying to get rid of a termite infestation. They can be time-consuming, potentially hazardous, and most importantly, may not effectively eradicate all termites. The ideal time to engage a professional for termite inspection is before any signs of termites or termite damage appear. Prevention is key to ensuring your home remains free from these destructive pests.

However, if you notice any potential signs of termite activity, such as swarms of flying termites, accumulations of what appears to be sawdust or feces beneath wooden structures, unexplained clicking sounds within walls, tiny holes in drywall, wood that sounds hollow when tapped, or visible mud tunnels near your home’s foundation, it’s important to contact a pest control professional immediately. Professional pest control services can offer comprehensive solutions to not only eliminate current infestations but also prevent future ones. Ultimately, enlisting the help of experts at the first suspicion of termites can save you from the extensive damage and repair costs associated with these invasive pests.

Contact Absolute Pest Management if You Are Dealing with Termites

If you’re dealing with termites in your home, taking prompt and decisive action is paramount to protecting your property and ensuring peace of mind. Absolute Pest Management specializes in comprehensive termite control solutions. We leverage advanced techniques and technology to effectively eliminate termite infestations and prevent their return. Our team of termite control experts is committed to delivering the highest standard of service, ensuring that your home remains safe, secure, and free from the destructive force of termites. Don’t let termites compromise the integrity of your home—contact Absolute Pest Management today and take the first step towards a termite-free environment. We have offices in Austin and Buda, Texas and serve the surrounding communities. Together, we can safeguard your home against these unwelcome invaders and preserve the value and comfort of your living space.

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Signs of Termite FAQs

  • How can you tell you have termites?
    • Identifying a termite infestation early can save your home from significant damage. The most common signs that you may have termites include the discovery of:
      • Termite swarmers or their discarded wings
      • Mud tubes on exterior walls, foundations, or in crawl spaces
      • The presence of damaged wood which may appear hollowed out
      • Unexplained piles of what looks like fine sawdust (termite frass) near wooden structures
  • What does termite damage look like?
    • Termite damage can vary in appearance based on the type of termite and the extent of the infestation but typically includes several distinctive signs. Termite damage may manifest as buckling wood, swollen floors and ceilings, and visible mazes within walls or furniture. Another telltale sign is the appearance of blistering wood that sounds hollow or collapses when pressure is applied to it.
  • What do termites look like at first?
    • When termites first emerge, especially during swarming season, they can be mistaken for flying ants due to their similar size and winged appearance. Termites at this stage are known as swarmers or alates and they are typically about a quarter inch long with a soft body that is light to dark brown in color. A key distinguishing feature is their wings. Termite swarmers have two pairs of long, equal-sized, translucent wings that extend well beyond their body. Additionally, termites have a straight waist, as opposed to the pinched waist of an ant.

Sources

[1] http://extension.msstate.edu/content/termite-biology-eastern-subterranean-termites-and-formosan-termites

[2] https://www.pestboard.ca.gov/forms/termites.pdf

[3] https://www.wagnermeters.com/moisture-meters/wood-info/softwood-floor-not-as-hard/

[4] https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/IG097

[5] https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/termite-swarmers-what-do-they-mean-for-you

[6] https://exploresound.org/2017/06/termite-head-banging-sounding-alarm/

[7] https://njaes.rutgers.edu/fs338/

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