Are these termites?
April 5, 2009 5:44 PM   Subscribe

Are these termites? If so, what should I do about them?

I found a very active colony of bugs under a flag stone in my back yard, about 25 feet from my wood frame house. They look like termites to me. Are they? Any idea what kind?

I live in the Boston area, and have heard that neighbors have had termites. When we purchased our house about four years ago, the inspection didn't show any signs of termites in the house.

The back yard is pretty damp.

I have a big jar of boric acid in my cabinet. Should I just dump that on the nest? I'm am generally not the kind of person to use chemical pesticides, but this is a case where I would be willing to go for the full-strength toxic chemical treatment in a spot in my backyard if it will help prevent termites from getting into my house. Please let me know if there are specific termite poisons that you recommend.

Or should I call in the cavalry, i.e. hire an exterminator?

We do not generally have much plant growth immediately around our house, i.e. the house is surrounded mostly by cement paths and there is a cement foundation for the first three feet or so before the wood siding starts. Should I make extra sure that there are no botanical pathways connecting the yard to the physical structure?

Any other tips greatly appreciated.

(I can try to take some better pictures tomorrow if that would help the ID. These photos don't reflect the activity of the nest, as most of the bugs had scurried underground by the time I got these shots. There were many many more of them.)
posted by alms to Home & Garden (7 answers total)
They're termites, no idea what type. If you can, I would have a professional look at your house, just in case and get rid of the ones in the backyard.
posted by InsanePenguin at 6:03 PM on April 5, 2009

Those sure look like termites. I wouldn't be comfortable with any kind of do-it-yourself job.

I had perimeter treatment last year. One company was pushing Termidor, but another gave me the choice of Termidor or Premise, which was cheaper, and the guy was honest enough to tell me that, locally, he'd seen better results with Premise. I called local companies, not the big chains. Pre-treatment estimates were free -- if that's also the case in your location, get several estimates and ask questions. It's easier to sift real advice vs. what they want to sell after a few conversations.
posted by sageleaf at 6:25 PM on April 5, 2009

You can have termites 10 feet from your house, chomping on a dead tree stump, and they may never invade your house. Or they might. You just don't know, and unless you're vigilant, you won't know until the wood in your house has been turned to paper-mache. If your house hasn't been treated recently (last 5 or 7 years) for termites, and if you're not paying the ransom money for yearly checkups, AND if you're in an area that has some termite activity, then you want to do something.

Get a reputable termite guy out to check the colony and your house. In my experience, the reputable guys will be from a smaller shop that's been around forever. Any national chain will probably charge you way too much money.

Seeing as the buggers are in your neighborhood, I'd probably go whole hog and get a chemical barrier treatment. The bait systems are more labor intensive, and in my opinion are not terribly effective. Termidor is probably the best chemical out there. Until recently, companies pushed repellents, but the flaw with a repellent is that if there's even a tiny gap, and the termites are foraging for food, they'll find the gap and you're screwed. Termidor can't be detected by termites, so they crawl through the chemical, bring it back to their nest, and bingo, dead termite colony!

Depending on local laws, you might be able to do it yourself, but it can be a pain in the ass. The cost of the chemicals and equipment (you mention concrete, so you'll need a big fat hammer drill and pesticide injector) is pretty close to what a treatment might cost.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 6:27 PM on April 5, 2009

They look like termites based upon their thick waists. Google up termites vs. ants for more comparative pictures. By the way boric acid is chemical lite, dump away. I would hire a pro to inspect. If you are worried about chemicals there are some alternatives with things like Tea Tree Oil if you pick the right exterminator.
posted by caddis at 7:33 PM on April 5, 2009

they are 100% drywood termites.

Don't panic. Have your house inspected if it will put your mind at ease, but termites are everywhere. Almost any house of any age will have some somewhere and you can certainly treat any active colonies in your home. Treatment generally happens when a home changes hands through inspections and discovery during the escrow process.
posted by Edubya at 7:46 PM on April 5, 2009

Get some free inspections from local and national companies, and if possible tag along with the inspectors and have them point out potential bad areas. It will help to educate yourself beforehand so you know what to ask.

First, termites are extremely fragile and easy to kill. Their bodies are mostly water and they need a moist environment to survive. If they have made it into your house they can eat away your walls from the inside, but they are going to leave signs. There will be some that go looking for sources of water or moisture. If their tunnels go through a wall, they will plug the end of the tunnel with their mud to keep the tunnel moist. This will leave what looks like little cigarette ash coming out of the hole. Look for these on the inside of the exterior walls.

The termites will not want to live in your house. They will go back and forth to the underground colony. To do this they will have to make mud tracks along the exterior wall from the siding to the ground. With the three feet you mention they should be easy to spot. The other places they can transfer are anywhere the water drains pass through the foundation. All the inspectors that checked my house were only concerned with the bathtub drains, but in your area they may check all the drains. They all wanted to put inspection hatches behind the drains as well so they could be checked yearly. If you have cracks in the foundation, they can probably get through them as well.

Concerning the vegetation around the house, they recommend only 6" of a vegetation free zone, but of course more is better. You can use a weedeater to just strip the grass, weeds, etc away and just leave dirt, or you cover it with gravel or paver stones. If you have flowerbeds and want to have decorative mulch, use rubber mulch against the house. You mentioned the back yard is wet, but more important is directly around the house. You don't want to have standing water around your foundation after it rains, and not just to detract termites.

As far as treatment goes, the chemicals the pros use are the real deal and work really well. From what I understand, you can buy the same basic chemicals in stores, but they are water based and don't last anywhere near as long as the oil based ones the pros use, for which you need a license. (About 3 months compared to a couple dozen years.)

The other thing about the pros is that they will want to make a complete barrier around your home. They will dig a trench around the perimeter and drill though you patios, etc. With the store treatments, you just spray the bottom few inches of your exterior walls every few months. I have used Spectracide Terminate (the liquid, not the baits) around the woodpile and it works very quickly and well. It should also reduce ants, spiders, roaches, etc.

Whichever way you go, you should do your own inspections around the foundation every few months and not just rely on the pros yearly inspection. As one inspector told me, you are just as likely to have a swarm land on your wall randomly than have a ground colony invade your house.

As for the boric acid, that description is a little vague and you might want to look into what exactly is in it before you dump it in your yard. You can make your own with Borax and hot water that should dehydrate the termites and be relatively safe.
posted by Yorrick at 10:52 PM on April 5, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for all this information.

I spoke with an exterminator in April. She said that termites termite nests can extend for 40 feet underground, and that they are basically everywhere in our part of the country. She also said that they are beneficial insects (when they are not eating houses). So there's no point in treating the little bit of activity that I saw under the flagstone in our backyard.

She did recommend that we have our house checked once the weather warmed up a little bit more, to make sure that none of them are coming inside. So we'll be doing that soon.
posted by alms at 6:15 PM on May 6, 2009

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