They are not really white and they are not really “ants” but these insects are often referred to as ‘white ants’. Although termites play an important role in nature, a few species attack man-made wooden structures and objects, earning themselves a reputation as the most destructive timber pests known to man.

Subterranean termites usually have to maintain contact with the soil to obtain sufficient moisture to survive. They live together in a colony and are divided into various castes, each with a specific duty.

Worker termites are by far the most numerous of the castes. They forage for food, care for the young and build the nest. The workers are responsible for damage to timber caused in their search for food, which consists mainly of cellulose, sugars and starches present in the timber.

Protection of the colony is the duty of a relatively small number of soldier termites. Nature has equipped these soldiers with physical and chemical weaponry to help them repel invaders.

A further caste consists of the reproductive termites responsible for the propagation of the species. These reproductive termites grow wings and are known as alates.

Once a year, usually in early summer, on a warm and humid evening, they swarm from the nest. After a short flight, these males and females shed their wings prior to mating. Most of these potential “king and queen” termites either fall prey to birds, lizards, ants or spiders, or die of exposure before they can find a suitable location. But, if they find a suitable environment, a new colony will result, which, after many years, may contain over one million termites.

Whenever termites leave the soil in their search for food, they construct mud tunnels to protect them from predators and also to ensure that a high level of life-sustaining moisture is maintained within the workings.

DO NOT DISTURB

If you uncover termites, try to put things back as they were. Ripping out flooring boards, architraves, etc. may kill the few termites in those timbers but in doing so you have lessened the chances of an expert effectively treating the main nest. They will re-group and probably choose to attack another section of the structure.

Control your anxiety; waiting another few days before treatment makes little difference to the extent of the damage.

MANAGEMENT

During building construction, the risk of attack can be reduced if effort is made to remove stumps, roots, off-cuts and to properly consolidate the soil to minimise cracks in concrete slabs. Termites don’t ‘eat’ concrete but if it cracks, they may widen the crack and get up into the interior timber walls.

Long term protection can be gained by the application of chemical or physical barriers, or both, to prevent termites from penetrating the structure. An Australian Standard has been written on the subject. The aim is to keep timber away from soil contact and to ensure subterranean termites have to build a mud tube out in the open where it can be seen during a regular, careful inspection.

Treatment for prevention or control – in an existing building or one under construction – is definitely work for a trained professional, for a variety of reasons, including access to the appropriate materials.

Before you buy a home, office or factory, have an expert inspect it. The cost of a full report is minimal compared with the expense of repairs.

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