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Nashville Scene Flying Time Again

It's April--time for termites to take off

By Walter Jowers

APRIL 10, 2000:  Last April, co-inspector Rick and I finished up an inspection, walked out the front door of the house, and found ourselves in a cloud of swarming termites. Unlike most of our inspections, this one wasn't for a potential home buyer. We did this one for the woman who already owned the house. "Sweet Baby Jesus," I said, slapping at termites more numerous and stupid than cicadas, "I guess I'd better go tell the lady of the house."

So I fetched the woman, pointed to the rising cloud, and said, "See those bugs? Those are swarming termites."

"Where are they coming from?" she asked.

"Not to sound all smarty-pants or anything," I answered, "but they're coming out of holes in the ground. Those holes lead to termite colonies."

Just then, another cloud of termites rose from the ground a few feet away. Then another. And another. As fast as I could point out one bunch of termites, another bunch burped up out of the flower beds.

In less than 10 minutes, every bug was gone, flown off to start a new termite colony. If Rick and I had left the house two minutes sooner or 10 minutes later, we'd have missed the bug eruption, and we wouldn't have had any clue that there were termites in the ground next to this woman's house.

Tennessee is a termite-rich state. According to Orkin, there are about 15 termite colonies on an average acre, each with about a million bugs per colony. That's a lot of livestock. If all my termites up and died tomorrow, I'm afraid my yard would sink an inch just from the loss of biomass and wreck my foundation.

Swarmers, like the ones in our unfortunate customer's flower beds, come from mature colonies that have gotten too crowded even for bugs that like to rub up against each other. If you get swarmers in your house, there's a pretty fair chance that the worker bugs have been eating your house for a while.

Swarmers outside the house don't necessarily mean termites are eating your house. But if the bugs are coming out of the ground immediately adjacent to your house, you surely ought to call the bug man and let him figure out where the bugs are living, and what they've been eating.

You'll know if termites swarm inside your house. In a matter of seconds, a bazillion bugs will appear, a-flying and a-crawling all over the place. Just so you won't get a termite swarm mixed up with some other plague: Termite swarmers are black, and they look like ants, except that they're about the same size all the way from head to butt, without the pinched-in waists that ants have. They have straight antennae, as opposed to ants' crooked ones.

Swarmers have wings, which they leave all over the house, but mostly in the windowsills. That's because these hellbugs have been underground, and they're genetically programmed to fly toward the light. When they get trapped in your house, they tire out and die pretty quickly. They can't bite or sting you, so just suck 'em up with the vacuum cleaner, live ones and dead ones alike.

House-eating termites (workers, not swarmers) are white, almost translucent. They live in the ground and build mud tunnels from the ground to your house. You probably won't see the house-eating termites unless you go into your crawl space or basement and break up their mud tunnels (about as big around as a pencil) or probe into a piece of actively infested wood.

There is no foolproof termite-detection system. Looking for termites in a crawl space is like hunting Easter eggs in the Titans' football stadium at night. When we go into a crawl space, we go packing a 250,000-candlepower flashlight. We're on the lookout for termites' mud tubes, termite-chewed wood, and termite crap (also called frass). But given that the flashlight beam is only about a foot across, that the wall and floor insulation obscures the tubes and wood, and that cave crickets are jumping in our faces--plus the fact that we're navigating an obstacle course of mud puddles and possum poop--the best we can do is say we did or didn't see any evidence of termites. We can't promise that there isn't some termite damage somewhere. If we had to guess, we'd say that there's a better than 50-percent chance of any given house having some termite damage.

Some exterminators have trained beagles to sniff out termites. This sounds good, but with 15 million bugs to the acre, I could put my own nose to the ground and say I smelled termites, and odds are I'd be right every time. High-tech exterminators have stethoscopes, which, if they put them in just the right places, might let them hear termites chewing. I've personally watched exterminators not find termites this way.

In my very own tool bag, I have a $300 termite fart-sniffing device. (It's sold as a combustible gas detector, but termites fart methane, so the machine does double duty.) Truth be told, the thing is more useful for finding the farting human at a party.

Homeowners, listen to me: Just give up the notion that any person, company, or trained beagle can actually find all the termites. Any Tennessee house could have termites at any time. If you want protection against termite damage, the best thing you can do is hook up with a good pest control company that can treat the house, put out termite-killing bait traps, and inspect your house frequently.

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