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Termite damage to homes can be very costly to repair, so early detection is of utmost importance.

Termites do more damage to homes in the United States than fires and natural disasters combined, says Greg Miller, branch manager for Terminix in Arlington, Texas."Once termites are in your home, the damage can quickly add up to thousands of dollars," he said. "Usually by the time we get a call from a homeowner, damage has already been done."

One termite colony can contain a million insects, and they may spread out over 12,000 square feet in search of food, Miller said.

That means a colony can infest more than one home at a time, said Lee O. Savage, an Orkin regional coordinator for North Texas.

Termites consume any material that contains cellulose, which includes wood, cotton and paper, says a report by a Texas Agricultural Extension Service entomologist.

Subterranean termites, for example, need moisture to survive. Because they obtain moisture from the soil, they constantly travel between the soil and an infested area of the house through mud tubes they build, Savage said.

A termite colony consists of a queen and king, nymphs, workers, soldiers and secondary reproductives, Miller said. Workers' bodies are light-colored and measure up to 1/8 inch long. At first glance they may look like maggots, he said.

Termites are most visible to homeowners during their swarming season, Savage said. Reproductive termites (swarmers), with clear wings and brown bodies about 1/4 inch long, emerge from the ground or walls. Usually they swarm in the spring after a recent rain, when the temperature is between 70 and 80 degrees, Savage said.

Termite swarmers can be distinguished from ant swarmers by the shapes of their bodies. A termite has a cigar-shaped, two-segmented body that consists of a head and abdomen. An ant swarmer has three body segments: a head, an upper body and an abdomen.

Both Savage and Miller recommend that homeowners regularly inspect their dwellings and immediately call a termite specialist if termites are suspected.

Look for the following signs:

- Inspect for mud tunnels on the exterior of the home leading from the ground up to cracks in the foundation or brickwork. Termites can penetrate cracks as small as 1/64 inch.

- In pier-and-beam homes, enter crawl spaces under homes and check concrete or cinder-block piers for mud tunnels leading from the ground to the wood beams. If piers are wood, sound out the wood by tapping it with the handle of a screwdriver. Listen for a hollow sound, indicating that the interior of the wood has either rotted or been eaten by termites.

- If you have a wooden porch built directly over soil, check for mud tunnels running up to the flooring and sound out the wood under the porch.

- Check pipes in the crawl space for signs of mud tunnels. Make sure that insulation on pipes does not touch the soil, which would make it easy for termites to enter unobserved through the insulation. Leave a 1- or 2-inch gap between the insulation and the ground.

- In concrete slab homes, check areas where plumbing enters the home from the slab: bathrooms and kitchens. Look for signs of paint, wood or drywall that have buckled or for small holes in wood. Look for doughnut-shaped mud rings or small spots of mud on wood. Gently press drywall and wood to see whether they've been eaten hollow.

- During the spring, check windowsills for dead bodies of swarmers or wings they have shed. Go into the attic and check spider webs for bodies of swarmers or wings.