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Termites are guaranteed attention-getters. These tiny creatures strike fear into homeowners. Their mere mention brings visions of houses tumbling down and thousands of dollars being spent to eliminate them. These creatures are often portrayed consuming entire trees or buildings right before our eyes.

Termite infestations are common, particularly in urban areas. Utah is largely spared outbreaks of the drywood termites found in southern locations. Houses encased in large plastic tents for treatment are rare in our locality. Subterranean termites are common but more easily controlled than other types.Anything made of wood is susceptible to termite damage unless it has been specially treated. Hysterical marketing techniques for termite control often pressure the public into a panic whenever they find creeping, crawling creatures. Remember termite infestations build up very slowly. Even after an infestation is discovered, there is adequate time to review all possible control options. Once you've decided on the best course, you can then take corrective measures.

Termites are small, soft-bodied insects that live in colonies that are divided into castes. Each caste has a distinctive appearance and specific tasks for the colony's well-being.

A queen rules the castes. Only she can produce young. Queens may produce as many as 1 million offspring in their lifetimes. Kings and queens are winged. They are often noticed as a new infestation leaves the existing nest to establish other colonies in the spring or fall.

The white- or cream-colored worker termites are wingless and about 1/4-inch long. Workers feed on the wood, causing damage. Soldiers are also wingless and about the same size but have large, brown heads and jaws. They do not feed on the wood but protect the colony from predatory pests.

Subterranean termites nest in the soil where moisture is available. Since soil does not contain sufficient cellulose, they migrate, looking for other food. In the forest they feed on fallen timber and are considered beneficial, but if they move into a home, they can cause serious damage. Unfortunately, this damage goes undetected until the insects eat through finish trim or until we see bits of sawdust or other material from their feeding damage.

Termites use the soil to keep their bodies moist and protected. To reach their food supply, they build mud tubes from the soil to the wooden structure of the home. This protects them and prevents you from seeing them. In some instances the tunnels are inside cracks in the foundation or otherwise obscured.

Termites are sometimes confused with ants but have several different characteristics. Termites have four wings of equal size, straight antennae and a broad waist. Ants, on the other hand, have narrow, pinched waists, elbowed antennae and hind wings that are much smaller than the front wings. Termites usually hold their wings flat over their bodies while ants usually hold their wings up at a 45-degree angle. Termite wings break off easily, so it is not unusual to find a pile of wings near a swarm.

To inspect for termites, you'll need a good flashlight, a hammer and an ice pick for "sounding" or probing wood. Examine the foundation of the home, garage, porches and window or door frames. Check roof eaves and gutters and be sure to check behind behind shrubbery and where fences may contact the house. Check any crawl spaces, the inside of beams and piers and areas near the outside foundation. Examine interior door and window frames, baseboards and blistered or stained areas that may indicate water leakage. Termites need water, so colonies often start near leaky plumbing.

If you find signs of termite infestations, the best advice is to contact a licensed pest control operator. Their mode of treatment depends on the construction of your home. New products for treating termites are less toxic but the average cost of treating a home has more than doubled. The effective length of treatment has decreased from 30 to 40 years down to five to 10 years. It is difficult for a homeowner to effectively treat against termite damage. Nevertheless, don't succumb to high-pressure tactics that claim your home needs to be treated within hours or catastrophic damage will occur. Companies that are members of the Utah State Pest Control Association subscribe to professional standards of ethical treatment practices. Don't be afraid to ask for references and get bids to compare the work that will be done.

Although pests are serious and may be costly to treat, they can be controlled. A few minutes inspecting the home on a regular basis may save many dollars in the future.