They're Out There 

What you need to know about termites.

One thing you should know about termites: You can poison them, you can light them on fire, you can stomp them, or even drop a neutron bomb on them. Whatever you do, you can never be sure that your house is immune to a termite attack. The termites were here before we got here. They'll be here when we're long gone and there's nothing left but Styrofoam, sharks, and Cher.

Usually, the first indication of termites eating your house is a termite swarm. In our part of the world, termite swarms happen right about now. When the bugs swarm, they come fast. One minute you're sitting on the sofa reading the Sunday paper, the next minute there are bugs in your hair, bugs on the walls and floors, bugs on the dogs and cats. If it happens at your house, don't freak out. Termites don't bite or sting. They can't hurt you. Just suck 'em up with the vacuum.

Sometimes, a plague of flying bugs turns out to be an ant swarm. An ant swarm isn't good, but it's better than a termite swarm. Here's how to tell ants from termites: Termite swarmers are black. 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. Termite swarmers have straight antennae. Ants have crooked ones. If you get termite swarmers in your house, it's a safe bet that termite workers have been eating your house for a while. I know that sounds worrisome, and it is. But it's usually not a crisis. Often as not, replacing or reinforcing termite-damaged wood is a medium-sized job at worst, and it's nothing a decent carpenter can't handle.

Swarmers outside the house don't necessarily mean termites are eating your house. It's perfectly all right for termites to come flying out of a rotten stump 100 feet from your house. That's what termites do. But if the bugs are coming out of the ground immediately adjacent to your house, that could mean your house is under attack. Call the bug man. If you're lucky, you won't be home when a swarm hits, and the bugs will let themselves out before you get home. You'll find some live and dead bugs here and there, but you'll mostly find wings on the windowsills. That's because wings fall off the swarmers as they fly out of their dark underground colonies and toward the light.

House-eating termites (workers, not swarmers) are white and they don't have wings. They live in the ground and build mud tunnels up to your house. You probably won't see the workers 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 infested wood. An Orkin factoid: There are about 12 to 13 termite colonies in a typical American acre, each with about a million bugs. Using those figures, I'd say that my yard alone has more termites than Tennessee has Tennesseans.

People ask me all the time: How can they be sure that there are no termites eating their house? Well, you can never be sure. You've got millions of termites in your yard, and they get up every morning with nothing to do but find wood and eat it. There's no fool-proof termite-detection system, and there's no truly effective termite-killing system. My smarty-pants sources tell me that the bait systems are best but far from perfect. When we're doing our home-inspection work, we go into a crawl space packing a 500,000-candlepower flashlight. We look for termite tubes, termite-chewed wood, and termite poop. But the flashlight beam is only about a foot across. We can't promise that there isn't some termite damage somewhere. The guys who come from the bug companies are specialists, but their termite inspection still involves one guy with one flashlight. Truth is, nobody can inspect a house and know if it has termites or not. Some exterminators have trained beagles to sniff out termites. I've been told that the beagles are good. But shoot, with 12 million bugs to the acre, I could put my own nose to the ground and say I smelled termites, and nobody could prove me wrong.

Homeowners, listen to me: Just give up the notion that any company, person, or beagle can find all the termites. Any Tennessee house could have termites at any time. If you want protection against termite damage, hire a good pest-control company, which can treat the house, put out termite-killing bait traps, and inspect the house frequently. If you're lucky, you might find a company that'll sell you a no-loophole repair bond, which means if bugs eat your house, they'll pay to fix the damage.

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