GIMMESHELTER- Buggy: Stop termites before the house goes

Matt Yeager and Gary Shifflett, Associates, Blue Ridge Termite & Pest Management Group

Q: I've recently noticed what looks like veins of clay coming out of cracks in my foundation. Do I have some kind of pest infestation? What should I do about it?

A: It sounds like you have a termite infestation, which you should treat promptly since termites can seriously damage your house in a short time period. 

Although you can purchase pest control chemicals and treat infestation yourself, the equipment you'll need is usually cost-prohibitive. If you already have an infestation, we recommend using a commercial treatment service, since they will use a stronger, more immediately effective chemical than you can buy yourself. 

During treatment, a chemical will be injected into the soil around your foundation, through which termites must pass in order to invade the house. Within 24 hours, the originally infected pests will return to the colony in your yard, spread the fatal chemical, and effect a colony die-off.

You can choose either a conventional or an organic, nontoxic treatment. Conventional treatments are the best choice if you already have an infestation, because they are most immediately effective. But nontoxic treatments get great results if you are aiming to prevent infestation in the long-term. In addition, pay attention to the proximity of chemical treatments to your well or garden, especially if you eat things from your garden. Nontoxic products are typically safe to use within five feet, and conventional chemicals within 20 feet, of your well or garden.

Other than the telltale mud tubes, eaten-away wood in your trim, foundation, basement, or crawl space may indicate an infestation. You will almost never see the pests above ground, since they require a very moist environment, and sunlight kills them. We've also gotten calls before from some very confused custumers, who have awakened to find piles of insect wings around their trim. It turns out that termites sometimes swarm a site, usually at night, and the swarmers' wings drop off in the course of their work. We've even had a couple of terrified and frantic calls in the middle of the night from witnesses to an actual swarm. It's no wonder, since the pests typically swarm in packs of one million or so.

This area happens to have a high termite population of, on average, three to seven colonies per acre (the Norfolk area has the third highest termite density in the nation). Termites can thrive even in rocky areas, so nobody should assume they're immune from infestation.

  Swarms typically occur between March and June, but termites are active all year long. And they eat 24 hours a day, so they can inflict serious structural damage in less than a year. One client didn't call until his floors had literally dropped out from under him, after termites ate away the home's foundation. Prevention is vital, and much less expensive than treating an infestation will be. Get (usually free) pest inspections annually, use a preventive treatment every five-to-seven years, and make sure your home is not termite-attractive.

Termites will eat any type of dead or live plant material, and they need a very moist environment, so make sure that combination does not exist within 12 to 20 inches of your home. Don't leave piles of construction material, grass, or weeds lying around, and elevate your wood pile above the ground. Place mulch and vegetation a few feet from your foundation. Don't let water from leaks, plumbing, and your dryer vent condense, especially in your basement or crawl space. Finally, repair any cracks as large as a matchstick in exterior walls, since termites can fit through any opening that large.