The Worst Termite Infestation I've Ever Seen
In my 14 years of working in the pest control industry, I have seen a lot of interesting things--especially when it comes to subterranean termites. I remember one service visit where I found termites feeding inside cardboard boxes, books, and magazines that were stacked in a garage on a concrete floor. It almost seemed like the termites had eaten their way up through the concrete. But, after a close inspection, it all made sense. They had built shelter tubes over the concrete slab of the garage and gotten into the wall void. Once inside, they had chewed their way into the stored paper goods in the garage to feed on the cellulose in those items. Since termite workers avoid light, they had entered the pile from behind so their shelter tubes were hidden from view. This helped them avoid detection as they fed for months. That was a pretty strange infestation.
I've seen a lot of "strange" things doing this job. Bugs can do some surprising things when they get into a man-made structure. But, to classify an infestation as the worst I've ever seen, it would have to be the infestation with the largest presence of termites and the most damage. So, I would have to say, the worst infestation I've ever seen happened about 8 years ago when I was still a service technician.
On the initial call from dispatch, I was told that the customer was noticing dirt on the floor in the kitchen. I thought it might be an ant issue because that was a common description used for a pavement ant infestation. Boy was I wrong.
When I got to the home, a friendly couple invited me in. They were calm and happy as they led me into the kitchen, pointing out that the mud problem was in the corner nook where there was a table and some benches. It was as if they didn't have a care in the world.
I looked behind one of the benches and saw a layer of mud caked on the bench which was four feet wide, and came up as high as my chest. I took my probe tool out, poked at the mud layer, and watched as it almost disintegrated around the tip of the tool. It was bad. Really really bad. I had 6 years under my belt at that time and this was head and shoulders above anything I had ever seen. If this was as bad as I thought it was, it could be devastating for the homeowners. So I proceeded cautiously. I didn't want to panic them. I calmly explained that the mud was brought in by termites and that these were termite shelter tubes--but that it might not be as bad as it looked. I was going to have to get under the house to see what we were up against.
Despite my reserved approach, it was as if the atmosphere had been sucked out of the room. The calm, friendly couple became immediately pensive, and the questions started to fly. I attempted to be diplomatic and tried to reassure them that everything was going to be fine, but I knew that a termite infestation is a lot like looking at an iceberg. Only about 20% of an infestation is inspectable. The other 80% is hidden from view. And if termites were doing what I could visibly see in this kitchen nook, we were in trouble. But, still, I didn't want to leap to conclusions.
I asked them about the foundation. They explained that the house was on concrete piers surrounded by a foundation wall, and that there was a hatch that gave entry to a crawl space. We went outside and located the hatch. I unlatched it, pulled it off, and crawled inside. What happened next is almost beyond words.
When I flicked my headlamp on, I couldn't believe my eyes. I thought it was going to be bad, but I didn't expect to see this. It looked like a sculpture--like a massive mud masterpiece--right there in front of my eyes. The mud shelter tubes created by subterranean termites are usually about the width of a pencil and run up the sides of walls. This had to be hundreds of shelter tubes intertwined as they went from the ground all the way up to the floor 3 feet above where it crested over the header like a wave. Also, there were dozens of mud stalactites hanging down from the floor joists, giving the crawl space a cave-like appearance.
Usually, it is difficult to find evidence of subterranean termites. In most cases, we have to dig a trench in the soil to find what we're looking for or use a flashlight and a mirror to look down into concrete pillars to see mud tubes. Termites prefer locations that are dark and hard to see into. So it is difficult to detect them even when there is a large termite infestation. This was anything but normal. This was in-your-face and spectacular to look at...for a bug guy like me. It was a 3-foot high, 4-foot wide, work of art.
The termites had worked their way up the foundation wall, up through the hollow cinder blocks, and had eaten their way through the subfloor. With this much visual evidence, there had to be a ton of damage. I was surprised the bench in the kitchen hadn't fallen through the floor!
In the light of my headlamp, I took some poor-quality pictures with my flip phone and crawled back out through the hatch. I showed the pictures to the couple, and their nervousness turned into sheer panic. I'm not gonna lie, on the inside, I was freaking out a little bit myself. The size of those shelter tubes had me believing that the home might be beyond repair. And of course, their first question was, "How bad do you think it is?" What could I say to that?!
I explained there really was no way to know at this point how bad it was and that it was possible that, although this was definitely severe, it could be isolated. If it was widespread, there would have been more structural signs. This idea seemed to lighten the tension quite a bit. So I said, "Don't worry. No matter how bad it is, it can be corrected."
Once things had calmed down, we started talking about what had to happen next. They wanted to know if there was anything I could do immediately. But I told them there really wasn't. It was a complicated process with many steps. The biggest hiccup with how fast we could accomplish the job was applying for the permit to dig into the ground. An agency had to sweep the property for utilities, gas lines, buried electric, water, sewer, and other sensitive items, in accordance with markout standard. After that was accomplished, we could start.
The infestation required three separate treatments to ensure complete elimination and exclusion. These treatments would be: Limited interior treatments, trenching and termiticide application in the crawl space and a complete perimeter barrier put in place. They agreed to the suggested treatment and we moved forward.
We scraped and removed all of the mud tubes on the block foundation to remove the path the termites were taking to get into the home. Then we dug trenches into the soil and applied Termidor--the number-1 termite control product in the United States. Termidor is a termiticide that not only kills termites, it uses worker termites to spread the product through their colony. When worker termites pass through the termiticide, which is undetectable to them, they pick it up on their bodies. As they groom one another, they share the active ingredient, fipronil, from termite to termite and eventually to the queen. This works to eliminate the colony and remove the termite pressure.
To address the termites inside the home, we injected termiticide. This was done from below so there would be little or no evidence that a treatment had been done. Then we applied a foam application to the foundation block itself. No termites were getting back into this house, at least not on our watch.
We also did a complete exterior perimeter treatment in the soil abutting the home. We applied 2 gallons of product per 10 linear feet per foot of depth all the way around the home to ensure a complete barrier. These would work to prevent future infestations from other colonies.
During the treatments, the homeowners were present and they asked a lot of good questions. Homeowners, in general, are pretty smart about these things. They read the literature we give them and read up on the products we use because they want to make sure we're doing the job we say we're doing. These questions are sort of like a test. We understand. When you shell out a bunch of money for termite control, you want to know where that money is going and whether or not you're getting what you're paying for. I answered their questions as we worked, and everything went according to plan.
90 days later, I returned for the post-treatment inspection, and the husband tagged along. I showed him everything, every step of the way. I explained what kind of things I would be looking for, such as the formation of new shelter tubes inside the cinder block foundation supports. If shelter tubes were found, I would know that termites were still active in the home. Fortunately, during this inspection, we didn't see any signs of termite activity. In fact, apart from a few drill holes, it was hard to tell that there was ever a termite problem or a termite treatment performed. The construction that had been done was seamless. They found an excellent contractor who was able to get in there, replace the damaged wood, and reinforce the load-bearing timbers.
I took this opportunity with the husband to talk about many things relating to this treatment. One point, in particular, is probably something all property owners would want to get a good understanding of. It has to do with how a termite guarantee works.
There can sometimes be a misunderstanding when it comes to the concept of a termite guarantee. When a certified termite control professional gives a guarantee, it isn't a promise that the termite barrier will never break down. All things break down over time. A good example of this is how the guarantee for a refrigerator works. At some point, that fridge is going to break. There's no way around it. The guarantee is in place so that, when the fridge breaks down, the guarantee holder can get a new fridge for free. That is sort of how a termite guarantee works. While the product we use bonds with the soil and isn't going to be washed away by rainwater, it will slowly break down over time. Our termite guarantee, which is renewable every year, ensures that when the product breaks down, it will be replaced at no charge to the guarantee holder. This guarantee comes with an annual inspection from a certified and experienced termite control professional. This led to a discussion on some of the many ways a termite professional detects termite activity.
Subterranean termites are subtle. Sometimes, they're really subtle. There are a couple of reasons why. The first has to do with how termite workers behave. As mentioned in the introduction, worker termites do not like the light. For this reason, they create their mud tubes in dark, secluded locations that are hard to see into. In this particular infestation, it wasn't hard to see the shelter tubes which had been created. But, often, tubes are created inside the cinder block piers of the block foundation, or inside wall voids, joist voids, and other locations that are hard to see into. A professional has to use methods that have been established by industry experts to make sure these tubes aren't missed. One example is the use of a flashlight and a mirror to look down into concrete piers. Each and every pier must be checked properly. When done by an untrained individual, tubes can be missed.
Another way termites are subtle is in the way swarmers behave. When a mature nest releases swarmers into the air, they don't swarm for very long. A typical swarm will only last about 15 to 30 minutes. So, unless they crawl out of your floor by the dozens, or you happen to see them under some mulch before they take off, you probably won't see them at all. Professionals look for secondary signs of termite swarmers.
Before swarmers mate, they shed their wings. A professional knows what these wings look like and where swarmers are most likely to shed them. They also know to examine cobwebs under a home or in secluded locations to find swarmers that have been captured by spiders. Cobwebs act like the sticky traps pest management professionals use to monitor pest pressures. The number and variety of bugs caught in sticky traps tell an important story of pest activity. Cobwebs play this role with the detection of swarms.
When a professional does an inspection, they know where to probe and where to dig to uncover termite activity. These locations are too numerous to outline in this article.
So, there you have it. That was the worst termite infestation I've ever seen. Hopefully, it is the worst infestation I will ever see. But, knowing termites, I doubt it.
There is a saying in New Jersey that says, "It isn't a matter of IF a home will get termites; it is a matter of when." I used to think this was an exaggeration. But I have come to learn that it is surprisingly accurate. Termites are a serious problem in the state, and no home or business should be without a termite barrier and a termite guarantee. If you're not able to invest in termite protection, at least take the time to do some of the following:
Make sure your downspouts channel water away from your home and not near your foundation so water does not run down the side of your home.
Fix any leaky exterior spigots and hoses.
Trim trees and bushes to allow the sun to keep your foundation perimeter dry.
Refrain from stacking any wood products next to your home.
Replace mulch with crushed stone.
Create a 2-foot barrier all the way around your home that is free of vegetation, organic debris, and objects that create areas of moist ground by blocking the sun.
Remove any stumps, logs, and decaying wood from your yard.
Do routine inspections for the presence of termite swarmers, swarmer wings, and shelter tubes.
If you need assistance with termite control or preventative termite protection, reach out to Arrow Pest Control. Our team of certified termite control professionals is looking forward to serving you.
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