The eastern subterranean termite is the most common and widely distributed termite in North America. It is found throughout all of the eastern, mid-western, and southern states, extending from Maine to Florida, and from Montana to the Gulf Coast. Subterranean termite nests are usually underneath the soil, thus the name subterranean. Eastern subterranean termite (EST) colonies are made up of three castes—workers, soldiers, and reproductives.
Eastern Subterranean Termite Workers are cream-colored, soft-bodied, and about 1/8” long—much smaller in comparison to drywood and dampwood termites. They are wingless, sterile, and blind and work 24 hours a day for their entire two-year lifespan. Soldiers are the protectors of the colony, 1/4” long and equipped with large jaws used to combat intruders. The head of the termite soldier is rectangular in shape.
The reproductive caste is made up of the primary queens and males (kings) that stay within the colony for life. EST reproductives or swarmers are about 3/8” long (including wings), with dark brown bodies and two pairs of wings that are lost after a termite swarm. The appearance of swarmers, or their shed wings, is the first sign of a termite problem.
Eastern Subterranean Termite Life Stages
Termites swarm to start new colonies, and a termite swarm marks the beginning of the termite life cycle. In late winter or early spring, swarms of the reproductive caste may be noticed in infested buildings. These dark-colored, winged termites are the most commonly seen termites, since the other castes do not willingly expose themselves to light.
Winged termites are often confused with winged ants, so it is important for homeowners to know how to tell the difference. Ants have narrow, wasp-like waists, while termites have broad waists. Also, an ant’s wings are about the same length as its body, while a termite’s wings are almost twice the length of its body.
Eastern subterranean termites swarm in large numbers over a wide area to find a mate. Winged termites are attracted to light, and when they emerge within buildings, they swarm around doors and windows. After crawling or fluttering about for a short time, the termites break off their wings and pair off, becoming king and queen of a new termite colony. Each pair attempts to locate moist wood next to soil to start a new colony, but few succeed. Although they can alarm homeowners, winged termites do not cause any damage.
Colony nest development is slow in the first few months, with the egg laying capacity of the new queen peaking after a few years, producing up to 10,000 offspring a year. A mature termite colony may have 20,000 to 5 million workers. The parental king and queen have the longest lifespan in the colony, often surviving for a decade or longer.
Eastern Subterranean Termite Threats
The eastern subterranean termite is a serious economic timber pest, costing homeowners and building owners as much as $5 billion annually in repairs, treatments, and prevention. Termites consume cellulose, the main structural components of plant cells. Any wood material in a home is a potential food source, but they may also damage non-wood material in search of food. Termites rarely show themselves in the open, and infestations can be difficult to detect until the damage becomes severe.
Although eastern subterranean termite populations cause severe damage to homes, they are not known to bite humans. Soldier termites have the ability to bite humans, but would only do so when provoked. Termites definitely bite wood and other insects, but they do not bite people.
Eastern Subterranean Termite Extermination and Control
Termite prevention is important to every homeowner, whether you have just moved into a new home, or have lived in your current home for many years. Follow these prevention tips to deter a termite infestation:
- Spray borate, a natural pesticide, onto any wood prior to priming and painting is an excellent way to prevent termites, and other wood destroying pests and fungi. The spray soaks into the wood, and when ingested by termites, disrupts their ability to digest food, and they eventually die of starvation.
- Routinely inspect the foundation of a home for signs of mud tubes (used by termites to reach a food source), uneven or bubbling paint and wood that sounds hollow when tapped.
- Eliminate wood contact with soil. Maintain an 18-inch gap between soil and any wood portions of the home.
- Avoid water accumulation near your homes’ foundation. Divert water away with properly functioning downspouts, gutters and splash blocks.
- Repair leaking faucets, water pipes and exterior AC units. Termites love soft wood! Water leaks cause wood to soften and attract termites.
- Store firewood at least 20 feet away from home.