It seems like a crazy time to be thinking about termites with the snowdrifts barely melted and the first swarms of termites many weeks away, but here is the deal. Throughout our region, alternating patterns of snow melting and refreezing resulted in irritating ice dams that plugged gutters and downspouts. As water overflowed these drainage systems, it often disappeared behind the gutter over the flashing and reappeared inside our homes. With ice melted and gutters running freely again, we can simply forget about this unfortunate episode, right? Well, not exactly. In the case of my gutters, the original reason for ice dams was a large collection of organic material near the opening for the downspout that restricted the flow of water and allowed it to accumulate in the gutter.
Wood that is chronically wet
Plugged downspouts and gutters will surely overflow following April’s showers. This creates a situation where wood is chronically wet just behind the gutter along the fascia board and, perhaps, even into the attic or wall. In a few short weeks, with the return of warm temperatures, healthy colonies of termites living in the soil not far from your home will produce winged queens and kings intent on founding new outposts. Although termites usually establish colonies in rotten logs, deep beds of mulch, or discarded timbers, chronically wet wood along a roofline may provide just the right conditions for a mated queen to establish a colony and move into your home.
Termites are social insects and have a distinct division of labor complete with a caste system of specialized workers, soldiers, and reproductives. Termite reproductives are kings and queens. Queens produce hundred of eggs that hatch and develop into workers, soldiers, and new reproductives. Workers perform a variety of tasks including tending the young, feeding the queen and soldiers, and gathering food. To utilize the nutrients tied up in wood, termites rely on symbiotic bacteria and in some primitive species, protozoa, which inhabit their gut to help digest the rugged plant material called cellulose. Termites have an unusual and rather crude way of passing these vital microbes from one termite to the next through a process called proctodeal trophallaxis. One termite excretes a droplet of microbe-packed fluid from its anus. Another termite waiting at the rear end consumes this packet of goodies. Yum! The transfer of liquids from one termite to the next is also a way of disseminating chemical messages called pheromones that regulate the development and behavior of termites within the colony.
Keeping termites out of your home
If you were a victim of ice dams during the past blizzard season, now is an excellent time to inspect your gutters and remove any obstructions to prevent overflow. Be sure to make certain that your attic ventilates well to prevent the build-up of moisture by adding soffit and gable-end vents. See that insulation in the attic does not impede the movement of air. In addition to keeping the attic drier, these steps will keep your house cooler in summer. To reduce problems with eastern subterranean termites in your landscape beds keep your mulch layer relatively thin - about 2 inches. This will allow mulch to dry out periodically. Termites need a wet environment to survive and thrive. In addition, a mulch free zone of about 12 – 18 -inches around the perimeter of your foundation may create a barrier that prevents termites in your landscape beds from reaching your home. Termites are ubiquitous in our landscapes but with a little diligence, you can keep these home wreckers at bay.
Bug of the Week thanks Dr. Nancy Breisch for providing termites and information for this week’s episode. We also thank Jorge L. Ribas for providing inspiration for this gnarly story. To learn more about eastern subterranean termites please visit the following web sites at Discovery Newshttp://news.discovery.com/videos/animals-termites-ready-invasion-as-ice-melts.html
and the Maryland Home and Garden Information Center.http://extension.umd.edu/publications/PDFs/EB245.pdf