Don’t Panic Over Termites

By Shirley Mozingo, At Home, June 10, 2006

In early May, a friend and resident of Southern Shores saw some insects flying around inside her living room window that she believed were termites. She quickly called the local office of a national pest control company and a representative came out the next day.

"He went under the house and said the termites were coming up inside the cinderblock foundation. He said they would have to come in and drill holes in the cinderblocks to inject an insecticide and bury traps around the house," she recalled.

After signing an annual contract for termite treatment to the tune of $1,342, she was telling a neighbor about the flying termites when the neighbor said, “I’ll bet you don’t have termites. You have flying ants.”

“That bothered me all night,” my friend admitted, “So the next morning, I Googled ‘flying ants’ and there they were – those little guys that had been flying around my window. It was real obvious they weren’t termites.”

She called the pest control company and rescinded the contract. The Federal Trade Commission’s Cooling-Off Rule gives consumers three days to cancel purchases of $25 or more and get a full refund if they buy an item in their home.

“Many times people get swarming ants diagnosed as termites. That’s because most people who come out and do termite inspections are also salesmen and they are on straight commission. When you’re on straight commission, there can be a tendency to be a little less than honorable sometimes when you’re getting a percentage of a $1,000 contract,” said Robert Hancock, 57, president of Outer Banks Pest Control.

Fraud has become so prevalent in the industry that so-called “bug lawyers” – attorneys who only handle lawsuits against pest control companies – are increasing throughout the termite belt, which includes North Carolina and most of the southern states.

Reported complaints include improperly applying fungicide; performing “windshield” or “drive-by” re-inspections for customers with annual contracts; submitting fraudulent pest inspection reports; performing ineffective or illegal treatments; billing for services not performed; falsifying records or reports; and practicing misleading sales tactics, such as signing customers up for monthly inspections but switching them to quarterly ones with no reduction in cost or, as in my friend’s case, leading her to believe that the insects she saw were termites.

“I love this industry. That’s why I’ve been in it for almost 40 years, but it does lend itself to a lot of unscrupulous people,” Hancock said.

Hancock has a degree in entomology and studied insects for 10 years while working in the regulatory division of the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture. He owned five pest control companies in Oklahoma before retiring and moving to the Outer Banks, where he opened a family run company six years ago.

One of the first lessons Hancock teaches his clients is how to distinguish between swarming ants and termites.

Ants have elbowed antennae and a constricted midsection (a “waist”) while termites have neither. If wings are present, the front and back wings of ants will vary in shape and size, while the front and back wings on termites are very similar in shape and size.

This is the time of year that both kinds of insects are swarming and, contrary to rumor, ants and termites can coexist, said Tommy Jump, president of Four Seasons Pest Control.

"I’ve opened up bait systems and found ants in the top and termites in the bottom."

“Ants will eat termites if they come across one, but termites live off cellulose,” he said. Termites survive by ingesting cellulose, which is found in wood and wood products such as books, carpets, drywall, flooring, paneling, canvas, cardboard and furniture.

The destruction they can cause is related to their unique ability to convert the cellulose in wood and paper to sugar. The do this with the special aid of protozoa and bacteria that live in their digestive tracts.

It's been said that, if you live on the Outer Banks, there are three types of termites: those you had, those you have and those you will have.

In reality, there are more than 45 different species of termites in the United States that fall into three major types: the drywood, subterranean (also called ground termites) and Formosan.

In North Carolina, our main problem is with subterranean termites, the little critters that normally live below ground before tunneling into our homes. Pest control experts attribute 95 percent of the annual damage done by termites in the United States to the subterranean species.

To make a house less susceptible to wood-chewing insects, foundations should be as impenetrable as possible and there should be no direct contact between the soil and untreated wood.

“Laying wood debris or firewood beside the house is a ‘no no.’ If you have any untreated wood next to your house, that’s basically inviting termites in,” said Jump. “You also don’t want sand building up against the side of your house because that creates a bridge that termites can cross to get in and avoid treated areas.”

Finding tunnel-like pathways on your foundation may be evidence of infestation.

“Mud tunnels are the first things to look for. You should have a qualified person come out and take a look at that. Hopefully, it will be somebody honest who will tell you what is going on under there,” said Jump, who recommends that homeowners go into the crawl space with him so he can show them evidence of infestation.

Other indications that a house may have termites include sagging or spongy floors; cracking paint; moisture problems; soft wood that’s easily penetrated with a knife; loose plaster; jammed doors or windows; wood that sounds hollow when tapped with the handle of a screwdriver; and a thin, gritty gray-brown film on the surface of damaged material.

Once termite infestation is confirmed, it’s best to get at least three estimates and then evaluate what each company is offering in terms of both the treatment and a guarantee. You should not feel pressured into making a quick decision.

“If you suspect you have termites, don’t panic,” said Fawn Pattinson, executive director of the Agricultural Resources Center Pesticide Education Project, a nonprofit consumer advocate group based in Raleigh that works to prevent human and environmental exposure to toxic pesticides.

“There’s a misconception that, if there are termites at your house, they’ll destroy it instantaneously.

“So, people often make decisions before they get all the information. You do have time to gather all your options and make an informed decision.”

Termites eat about a foot to a foot and a half of a 2-by-4 a year, Hancock said. “That’s not much wood when you talk about the overall structural integrity of a house,” he said.

The best treatment depends upon the house, its location, the extent of infestation and your budget, the experts say.

“You ask yourself, ‘How old is the house? Where are the termites coming up? Why are they coming up in that spot?’”Hancock said

Treatments may include a partial or whole-house application of a termiticide, wall injections, foam treatments or bait stations.

Hancock prefers treating a house with Termidor, a liquid that is applied to the home’s foundation walls and creates a continuous treatment zone that is guaranteed for 10 years.

If a house shows no signs of infestation, Hancock recommends no treatment “unless the people will worry themselves to death about termites. Then I tell them to get on a program,” he said.