I'm writing this because I couldn't find an existing website that directly addresses the termite questions people ask on alt.home.repair.

First -- go here to see if you have termites or ants? If you have ants, go to Other Bugs, bugs, bugs.

If you have termites you very probably have subterranean termites. There are other kinds but, they're not nearly as common in the US. You'll have to check the links at the end of the page to learn about other kinds. This discussion applies only to subterranean termites.  This page may help you tell which kind of termite you have, but it didn't seem too helpful to me.  If you decide you have drywood termites go here.

Subterranean termites live in underground colonies (nests), that may be 5 to 10 feet below the surface. They're only about 1/8 inch long yet, the workers forage hundreds of feet, traveling underground, surfacing periodically, searching for food (wood) to feed the colony. If they find the wood your house is built of they can do a lot of damage.


Subterranean termites MUST have constant access to water. If they dry out, they die. Above ground, they maintain mud tunnels or tubes to the ground, which they keep wet with water from the ground. 


One of the two most common ways termites are detected is seeing these pencil sized mud tubes. If you find one of these tubes and it's dry, it's probably inactive. In any case, check it by scraping away a 1-2 inch segment in the middle of the run. If it's active it will be rebuilt quickly--maybe in an hour or so, certainly in a day or two.

Occasionally, a colony can live above ground, in your house. This is unusual, because it requires a very wet area for them to get enough water to keep the tubes wet. An area wet enough to sustain a colony, will probably be noticeably wet (mildewed or water stained wall, etc.), though, I understand the less common, Formosan termites, can survive on less water than ordinary subterraneans.

The other way they are detected is swarming. In early spring or summer, depending on the breed, an established colony (~5+ years old) produces a jillion winged variants able to reproduce and spread the species. If the colony has invaded your house, hundreds, even thousands of these little critters may swarm out of your walls and cover a room or two. Trust me, it'll get your attention. It's usually over as quickly as it starts, lasting probably an hour to a few hours. These swarmers won't hurt you. They die quickly and you can vacuum them up. This eerie event may repeat in a few days or about a week. If they swarm inside your house, you have termites, and must do something, but not necessarily in a rush. Most termites work very slowly. Even an established colony is likely to eat no more than a quarter to one 2x4 stud in a year. The less common Formosan variety is more voracious. But, even it's nothing like what the Terminix and Orkin TV ads would have you believe. If you discover you have termites, you should get on it, but act with caution, at a thoughtful, deliberate speed. Note: Swarming outside of your house doesn't necessarily suggest you have a problem inside.

Without one of these two signs, it's hard for anybody, including a professional, to tell if you have termites until it's very obvious. They eat (hollow out) channels, called galleries, inside of wood leaving the outside intact but, often, paper thin. If you suspect a specific area, look along trim and molding (they like trim) near the floor for dark or discolored spots. Push around on exposed wood with something hard, but smooth so you don't damage the paint, like the butt of a table knife, or the round butt of a ballpoint pen. If they're advanced in the area, the wood will crush in.


Termites colonies are hard to destroy. The most common method of combating subterranean termites is a barrier method. This amounts to poisoning the soil adjacent to all places they can enter the house. The termites cannot go through this poisoned soil to enter the house, thus it forms a barrier to entry. Because the treatment is sort of expensive, people who discover one mud tube are often tempted to have that one area spot treated. This is almost always a mistake. The colony is always there, constantly foraging over remarkable distances. The colony attacking your house may actually be located beneath the house across the street. If one area/zone is blocked they will soon fine the way around it--entering the house through any untreated soil. Spot treatment only makes sense when there has been an effective whole house treatment and the termites have found a breach in this otherwise effective barrier. To protect ground and surface waters, the older effective termiticides have been banned. Older poisons would last from 20 years to a lifetime. Current poisons are limited in effectiveness and lasting power. What I've read says current treatments last 3 to 7 years.

Disclaimer: From here on it's mostly my opinions, and I ain't gonna argue about 'um! :-)

Who Should Do It?

A whole house treatment must be done by a professional. If you have a slab the big problem is entry points through the slab from underneath--cracks, plumbing penetrations, expansion joints, etc. They can squeeze through cracks as small as 1/64 inch. The colony may be beneath your house, and workers from any colony will forage underneath it, searching endlessly for any penetration. Treating this area requires that a knowledgeable person drill through the slab and pressure-inject the poison into key areas.

Orkin and Terminix charge more (sometimes a lot more) and probably won't do any better job than a competent local independent. But, if things really go wrong, their warranty response is likely to be MUCH better. Pest control, particularly termite control--like politics and used cars--has historically been a shady business, so you should take care when selecting a local, independent termiter. Some of the links I give at the end of this article try to help guide you in this selection, but it's not the way I do the selection, so I can't say how well their suggestions work.

With a whole house treatment you should get a unconditional 1-year guarantee against reinfestation. You may also be asked to sign-up for an annual maintenance contract. Annual maintenance ordinarily means you pay a fixed annual fee for the company to treat any spots of re-entry and to come out once a year to inspect for signs of such a re-entry. Years ago, because the chemicals were so effective, this annual maintenance agreement was mostly a ripoff--worse than service contracts for electronic gadgets today. But, with the less effective termiticides used now, you may well need some spot treatments from time-to-time over the 5+ year life of the main treatment. Because of this increased need to retreat, some exterminators no longer offer an extended maintenance contract. If you want it, be certain of the terms offered by the company you select--get a copy of their agreement and read the fine print.

Here's what I do

I have a monolithic slab, which provides the best termite resistance. It's important to be able to inspect for termites yourself. There is at least 6 inches of exposed slab all around my house, so it's easy to inspect for mud tubes.

I find an independent with a good reputation and a low price (you can bargain with an independent). I contract with him for the whole house treatment. I make it part of the contract that the initial guarantee extends past the next swarming season that's at least 3 months away. That is, he might have to give a 15 month initial warranty. Then I get an option to accept the annual maintenance contract at the end of the initial warranty, with the option to continue it on a year-to-year basis. There's no reason you should have to contract for the maintenance before it is to begin. If serious problems develop in the year I take up my option to extend the warranty, if not, I begin my own treatment.

In Texas an individual can buy the same chemicals professionals use.  I've not seen professional use termiticides at home centers like Home Depot.  Look in the yellow pages under 'Pest Control Supplies' or 'Pest Control Equipment & Supplies.'  I have been told in some states they are only sold to licensed exterminators.  These are the principal termiticides use by pest control operators, Dragnet® FT, Premise (a little newer), Termidor (even newer) and Tribute (I've never known anyone to use Tribute.)  Termidor claims to also have a colony killing effect.  

 One may work better than another in some parts of the country or with different kinds of soil.  I'm not sure whether this is true or an old exterminators' tale.  I selected mine by asking Terminix and Orkin what they use.  If I were having it today I'd choose Termidor.  The positive reports for it continue to mount up. 

From what I've been able to learn, inaccessible areas, like under the slab, are not likely to have their protection disrupted, so if they are good for longer, and they'll probably continue to hold for the life of the stuff.  Areas exposed to gardening, rain, sunlight, animals, etc are less secure, but easy to self-treat. I check the slab for mud tubes quarterly. If any appear, I saturate them with wasp & hornet spray (any pesticide may work), then wait a few days and brush the tubes away. I then watch the area for a week or so. The hornet spray usually does it. If another tube appears I trench about 10 feet on either side of breach and apply the poison (The last times I had to do this I used Dursban TC which is banned now.) according to the package instructions. I have never seen them come back to an area treated this way again.

Of Colony Killers, Baits & Sentricon
Written in 2000

Recently baits and colony kill methods have been introduced. The colony killers are based on a slow acting agent that, in some cases, contaminated termites carry back and contaminate the colony. One, called Bio-Blast, infects the creatures with a communicable and deadly fungus that only affects insects. It's applied by opening up areas were termites are active and dusting it on as many live insects as possible. This infects the exposed critters with the fungus. When these return to the colony they infect others, who in turn infect others, etc. The biggest problem appears to be finding enough termites to dust to make it effective.

FirstLine is a bait station that treats a single mud tube.

The colony killer method currently doing by far the most advertising is Sentricon. The active agent is an insect growth regulator. It stops the termites' molting process, so they are unable to grow, and they slowly die.  (Click here for details on how this works.)


This method is about 10 years old. It's not yet an established technique--that is, it hasn't been proven over time on a large scale. Access to the method, and thus the price, is controlled by the company that produces it by only selling it to their franchised licensees. Partly or mostly because of this anti-competitive marketing method, it's much more expensive than traditional barrier methods.

If it works, it can take a long time to eliminate the termites. Here's how It works: First, several stations (chambers) containing pieces of wood are buried in your yard. The stations are checked periodically (monthly?) looking for hits (termite activity). If activity is found, the termites are captured and put in a bait module containing the growth regulator. The module is then put in the chamber in place of the wood. The termites are expected to eat their way out of the module, carry the poison food back to the colony leaving markers that lead more workers to the module, etc.

Your initial contract is for two years because, as they will explain to you, it may take this long for it to work. In spite of its high cost, as of November '97, there is no guarantee it will work. Some individual licensees will agree to give you a traditional whole house barrier treatment if no bait station gets a hit in the 2 years. As of the above date, a single hit on a single station is considered success, whether you still have termites or not. Annual maintenance contracts are proportionally more expensive too.

Much of the cost is the MANY trips they must make to your house to check and service the stations. This is a product that clearly lends itself to easy do-it-yourself, but you can't buy it.

So; it's slow, it's expensive and it's not guaranteed to work. In short, I wouldn't do the Sentricon method, unless you've tried everything else, and you're at your wits end. A newer product/company named Exterra claims to be a direct Sentricon competitor (same chemical/bait-station method). I called the company and asked if they were more or less expensive than Sentricon. They claimed not to know anything about Sentricon pricing. You can judge for yourself if you want to do business with a company that starts out telling you they don't know how their price compares with their only competitor.

Some Do-It-Yourself baits have sprung up in the last year or so. They want you to think they're a cheap way to get the Sentricon method. They're NOT.  FMC Corp. and Spectrum Corp. are promoting Firstline TM and Spectracide Terminate Termite Bait TM as Termite population reduction tools. These two products are the same thing--a simple stomach poison (Sulfluramid). It kills the ones that eat it directly. When you read the fine print the manufacturers only claim these products "reduce the termite population and reduce the problem to a 'tolerable level'," whatever that means. I think it would be ill advised to depend on one of these Sulfluramid baits for your only termite control. This page may help you better understand baits. By the way, you can buy Spectrum's Terminate at Home Depot.


An article I read compares the two methods as follows:

Advantages of barrier systems:

  • less costly -  as low as 1/3 the cost
  • faster action
  • less complicated to use
  • longer track record of success

Advantages of bait systems:

  • destroy entire colony
  • safer
  • uses less chemicals
  • more environmentally friendly
  • long-lived protection (barrier systems need reapplication)
  • fewer  household disruptions like drilling in floors and walls, etc

This Article Has More Discussion on the Question of Bait Versus Barriers


Other Termite Links

A collection of links to termite articles

The best single page for the homeowner, brought to you by <drumroll> The University of Kentucky  

Another good termite page, from Ohio State University

Yet another termite page --, from the University of Missouri.

Australia's Dr Don's Termite Page -- Find instructions for a homemade colony killer bait box among other termite facts. They also have lot's of termites, down under.

For Texicans

This Texas A & M article gives advice about Choosing an Exterminator

Florida makes the cut: University of Florida agg service  (NOTE:  The UofF developed the Sentricon bait system with DOW Chemical Co.  You may want to take that into consideration when assessing their enthusiasm for baiting.

Main Page