What is a Wood Termite?

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  • Written By: Emma Lloyd
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 13 September 2019
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The wood termite is the bane of many homeowners. This pesky little insect eats cellulose, which is found in abundance in wood, and a wood termite colony is more than happy to make its home inside someone else’s when the conditions are right. In the U.S. there are two main categories of termite to be aware of due to their ability to cause havoc in the home, classified on the basis of the moisture content of their preferred habitat.

The drywood termite prefers to live in wood with a low moisture content, while the dampwood termite prefers wood with a high moisture content. This is because drywood termites can live off of water they produce as a result of digesting cellulose, while dampwood termites cannot do this, and therefore require an external source of water. For this reason these two types of termite species live in different areas of the U.S. and other parts of the world.

Despite the difference in moisture requirements, both types of wood termites tend to inhabit the same types of wood. The difference lies in the fact that a dampwood infestation is more likely when the wood is in regular contact with water, perhaps due to a leak, poor drainage, or another source of water. If there’s no external water source near the infestation, chances are that it is drywoods causing the termite damage.


It is not easy to tell termite species apart by sight. All termites look roughly similar, with a pale cylinder-shaped body and a sizable round head with large mandibles. The head is darker in color than the body. Depending on the species they range in size from one third of an inch (0.8 cm) to around three quarters of an inch (1.9 cm) long.

Any of three warning signs can indicate a wood termite infestation. Damage to wood is not always the most obvious, simply because termites burrow from the inside of the wood to the outside. Pinholes may appear in drywall or wood, but even these may be absent. In places where an infestation is suspected, the material can be hit with a hammer or other tool. If the tapping sounds hollow, it may indicate an infestation.

The second warning sign is the presence of tubules, tiny tubes which the insects construct from mud. Tubules provide the termites with a way of traveling from the nest to food sites, and are around the diameter of a pen. Tubules by themselves don’t necessarily indicate a current infestation, as they might be left over from a previous wood termite infestation. For this reason a few tubules should be broken open to check for termites.

Finally, the most obvious sign of a termite infection is an indoor swarm. However, since the average termite colony swarms fairly infrequently, this is not a reliable warning sign. Termites typically swarm early in spring on a warm, sunny day. Dampwood termites are more likely to swarm following rain.

When a wood termite infestation is suspected the next step is an inspection by a termite exterminator, to confirm the presence of the insects and determine their species. Following the confirmation of an infestation, termite control in the form of a sprayable pesticide is the typical treatment. These sprays must be repeated every few years to ensure no new colonies arrive.


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Post 5

The best way to deal with termites is to make the home inhospitable to them by taking some precautions. Checking water pipes, sealing cracks, keeping wood and wood structures at a distance from the home and getting rid of dead tree stumps are great ways to prevent termite infestations.

My friend had an infestation and they found that the source was a dead tree trunk that was adjacent to the porch. So the termites went from the tree trunk to the porch and into the structure of the house. It took my friend a long time to discover it too.

Post 4

@candyquilt-- This topic is actually a little controversial. Some say that wood chip mulch does not attract wood termites while others say that it does. My neighbor refused free wood chip mulch in fear of termites and ended up purchasing bark mulch which apparently termites do not like.

I have used wood chips in my yard before and did not experience a termite infestation. So based on my personal experience, I'd say that wood chip mulch is safe to use. But you may want to ask a professional about this, perhaps call up a local company selling wood chip mulch and ask them?

Post 3

I have a question, do wood termites get attracted to mulch?

I'm thinking about mulching my flower garden and tree roots this fall to protect them from the cold. But I'm a little worried about termites. Do termites usually eat mulch?

Post 2

@Terrificli -- the best thing about that termite inspection is that it is largely preventative. Sure, the inspector can find termites but the best advice he can give a home owner is how to prevent conditions that attract the critters.

For example, my termite guy told me to move a woodpile that was resting against the outside of my house. He pointed out that termites could easily be attracted to that pile and then move on to my home. Good advice and it is not something I would have thought of when considering conditions that invite termites to gnaw on a house.

Post 1

You have just mentioned one of the main problems with identifying an infestation. They tend not to swarm and can only be detected after they've caused a lot of damage.

Perhaps the best way to deal with these pests is to get a termite inspection contract with an exterminator. Those tend to be inexpensive and can save you thousands of dollars in damage. In fact, you might want to check your homeowners policy and see if it covers termite damage and whether your insurance company requires you to have a pro inspect for termites regularly.

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