University of Missouri Extension

Chuck Adamson
Senior Information Specialist

Published: April 20, 2006
Story Source: Richard Houseman, (573) 882-7181

Termite study shows which species
thrive in urban areas and woodlands

COLUMBIA, Mo. - Black insects swarming inside a home in springtime are a strong sign of termite infestation.

The winged wood-eating insects live in homes and feed on all things cellulose year-round but are generally less active during winter months.

The swarmers, as they’re called, are king and queen termites in search of new colony sites. Swarmers eventually shed their wings, often leaving hundreds in a swarm’s wake. Termites can then often be seen crawling nearby. In Missouri, swarming season is typically from April through June.

"Over months and years, termites can cause significant damage to a home, to the studs, wood flooring and framing," said Richard Houseman, a University of Missouri-Columbia assistant professor of entomology. "They’ll find anything that’s cellulose and eat it."

Houseman and Olga Pinzon, MU entomology doctorate student from the country of Colombia, have spent the past two summers collecting and analyzing 450 samples of termites taken from in and around nine Missouri cities, including places such as Maryville, Cape Girardeau and Salem. Several hundred more samples were collected from professional pest controllers.

Pinzon presented some of the findings on April 17 in a poster presentation during Missouri Life Sciences Week at the Bond Life Sciences Center on the MU campus.

Termite samples came from each of the cities’ urban areas and in nearby woodland areas. The research confirms with hard data for the first time, Houseman said, what professional pest controllers and bug scientists have long suspected, that 80 to 90 percent of Missouri urban termite infestations are the eastern subterranean termite species. What’s surprising, Houseman said, is that 80 to 90 percent of the woodland samples were usually identified as the light southeastern subterranean termite.

"In general, homeowners just say ‘those are termites’ and they want to kill them no matter what species they are," Pinzon said. "This project is more for research, for the development of species-specific controls."

Pinzon is returning to Bogota, Colombia after finishing her studies in January. She plans to teach at a university and apply her research in the area’s tropical regions where termites are common.

"In homes they are a pest, but in the forest they help in decomposition and help improve soil conditions," Pinzon said.

The numbers are preliminary estimates. Houseman and Pinzon are using molecular identification for absolute confirmation of species’ types.

The reasons for the different proportions of termites in urban versus woodland areas are unknown, Houseman said, but his theory is that eastern subterranean termites adapt easier to human environments.

Tiny mud tunnels, about half the width of a pencil, found on a home’s foundation are another telltale sign of infestations. Termites must maintain contact with the soil, so they create tunnels to migrate back and forth in.

Placing mulch too high against a foundation can shield the tunnels from view and create moist conditions that attract termites. If applying mulch, leave a thinner layer than normal near a foundation, with three to four inches of concrete exposed so that tunnels can be spotted.

"Mulching has great benefits for plants, but if you make good conditions for plants, you’re likewise going to make good conditions for subterranean termites," Houseman said.

If a termite infestation is suspected, call a professional pest control company.

"If you see a mud tube or swarms, there are no effective over-the-counter treatments," Houseman said.

Pest controllers use several treatment methods, including drenching soil around a home with pesticide, installing bait stations or a combination of liquid drenching and bait stations.

Houseman cautioned that homeowners should only allow soil drenches with pesticides that kill, not just repel, termites. Repellant is only effective when used as a pre-construction treatment, Houseman said, but some pest control companies still offer post-construction treatments using the cheaper repellents.

A scare was caused after Hurricane Katrina when an internet posting circulated e-mail boxes throughout the Midwest. It speculated that Formosan termites, a highly damaging termite found in Gulf Coast states, could infest the Midwest through commercially sold mulch made from trees downed by the hurricane. Experts, including Houseman, said the e-mail was urban legend. The potentially infected wood wasn’t being allowed for sale as mulch. Also, the termites would almost certainly die during the mulch chipping process or inside the plastic bags used to hold mulch sold at retail stores. And if they did get here, the termites would not likely withstand the region’s winters and would ultimately die out.

"No one has ever found a Formosan termite in Missouri," Houseman said.

Photo available for following caption

Richard Houseman, University of Missouri Extension entomologist, inspects a termite bait station next to a home. Houseman and Olga Pinzon, an MU doctorate student, have been studying which termite species thrive in Missouri’s woodland and urban areas.
Photo credit: MU photo by Steve Morse.

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