SS: Welcome to the DIY Termite Control Podcast. My name is Simon Strachan. I’m speaking with Ion Staunton who is an entomologist. He is a former trainer of Pest Technicians here in Australia. He’s a textbook author. He’s the inventor of the world’s first DIY Termite Control System for homeowners.
Today, we’re going to be talking about termite swarms. It’s around this time of year in spring and early summer that we’re likely to see them. We’ll be talking about what they look like, how to identify them, what they mean to home owners, and what to do about them.
Ion, how are we?
IS: We’re doing very well. Thanks, Simon. Yes, it is that time. We’ve had calls coming in for now a couple of weeks about too much swarming. No matter where you live in Australia, it’s due if it hasn’t happened already.
SS: Okay! Well, we’ve got a number of questions I’m going to run through with you. These are questions that have come through to us from customers and also from readers of Ion’s Do-It-Yourself How To Guide. If you like to grab a copy and if you haven’t got a copy of those yet, head over to termitetrap.com.au/htg and grab your copy there post haste.
Ion, let me just start on these questions. We’ve got a question from Lyle via e-mail. This is a nice, simple one to start with. It says, how many in a swarm? I’m guessing the answer is, it depends, but, what is the answer?
How many in a termite swarm?
IS: Yes, it does depend. It depends on the size and the age of the colony. Let’s start by saying that the colony once it gets started from one of these swarms, it takes about, depends where you are in Australia, but three to five years. It can get to mature-enough stage to start producing new colonies. That’s the sort of time frame. Every year after that, that colony will be sending out reproductives. As a it gets older and more mature it sends out more. The answer is probably between five and twenty five thousand plus, plus.
SS: Okay, well, let’s back up for one moment and we’ll say that termites live in nests, don’t they? They may live in nests underground or they may live in nests in trees.
Do all termites swarm?
IS: All termites swarm so some of those nest up in the tree, the brown nest up in the branches, they swarm. The termites that really do serious damage to houses which live underground or in the hollow tree, they swarm. Those big mounds that you see out in the northern territory, those magnetic ones, they swarm. So, all termites swarm. The problem is you can’t tell the difference between the species of the termites that are on your back veranda or your swimming pool next morning after the swarm. You just can’t tell from looking at the reproductives what sort of termite it is, but they all swarm.
SS: Okay, got it. The next question then is allied to that and it’s from Judy via email. Does it mean that each swarm is a separate nest?
Is each swarm a separate nest?
IS: Yes. When there’s a swarm it’s coming from a nest. As we just said, if it’s a very warm, hot evening, humid, after rain and you’re in bush land area, there might be four, five or twenty five nests all swarming because the conditions are just perfect. Bit of a mix-match, a hotchpotch, but that’s what happens.
SS: Okay, no worries. As you said, not all of these termite swarms are going to be dangerous towards houses. How then does the homeowners. . . what’s the best way for them if they can grab one of these little beasties, what is the best way for them to identify which are potential threats and which aren’t.
IS: Okay. You can’t identify them by looking at the swarming termites. First of all, you probably should understand or recognize that they are actually swarming termites and not swarming ants. That’s really simple because termites are the only insects that have wings the same size. The fore wing and the hind wing are the same size. If you see things out on the back end or the patio, caught in the screen door, drowned in the swimming pool, and the wings are on them or the wings are there, they’re all the same size, they are termites. I guess we should say that ninety nine plus percent of all termites formed never ever get to be successful colonizers.
What has to happen is, the boy has to follow a girl and they have to dig a little cave if you like, alongside some timber (food), usually in moist ground. So this little cave, as big as your little fingernail or a bit bigger and they’ve got to be in maybe for a day like next day before the ants come around, the birds come around and all that small stuff. Once they get started into that little cave against the timber, they’ve got that food from the timber they’ve got the moisture from the soil and away they go. They start to eat that timber in each day and also they start carrying down deeper into the soil but because all these happens in early summer or late spring, then the summer comes along and it’s hot and dry in much of Australia after that.
Many that thought they might’ve been successful, they just dry out and die anyways. So, the attrition rate is 99.9 percent, depends a bit whether you’re in a suburban city street area or whether you’re in a bush land area with rainforest. It does may take that most of them do not cause problems to houses. If you’ve got termites around the place, I guess you really need to inspect around the house itself to see if there’s any termites already eating the house. Long answer but that’s where you’re up to.
SS: No problem. Let’s then skip on into a question from Jessica that we received on our email. We managed to get some of the termites hit a bait pack in our bathroom so we’re very happy to know we can manage them. I do have a couple of questions about swarming termites. If we do spot swarmers, are there any tips on how to track where they’re coming from?
How do you find where termite swarms come from?
IS: Well, let’s answer that one. I’m reluctant to say this in case I cause somebody to be struck by lightning, but if the termites are swarming outside in your verandah if there’s no lightning and you have a torch, you can wander around the house pointing this torch above your head in your hand like a lightning rod and see if you can find termites coming out of a tree, door post, the eaves, the cables of the house.
Normally, termites will emit from an area that’s fairly high, so because they’re all very weak flyers, they try to get as much height as they can before they start fluttering and that’s why they can travel reasonable distances before they hit the ground. So, yes, if they are swarming around the back door, you do see them in that late afternoon evening, then yes, you could look around and maybe they are coming from a post, then maybe later or next day, you can actually bait them in that post.
If they’re coming from your house, well, you know they’re there and you should do something about finding where they are already in the house. If they’re coming from a gum tree, well, you might be able to say, “Well, I can bore a hole in that gum tree and kill the termites that are inside it.” If they’re coming from up in the branches of tree, the big brown things, no need to worry about those ones because they don’t normally eat the soil, timber, in houses. Yes, you can track them but please don’t get struck by lightning or blame me if you do.
SS: That’s a very wise advice there. Now, the other part of Jessica’s question was, if we spot them, and they land in our yard, should we deal with them straight away?
If we spot them, should we deal with them straight away?
IS: No, there’s nothing you can really do. Nature will take its course and as we said, 99.9 percent or whatever won’t make it through next few days anyway. So, there’s nothing really she needs to do.
SS: Okay, no worries. Next one is Jasper via our email. Can they fly if the roofing timbers can establish a colony? Now, I’m anticipating that by what you said, they’re not particularly good flyers, they’re more like floaters. So, the chances I’m going upwards into a structure might be limited. Would that be right?
Can swarms fly into roofing timbers?
IS: Yes and no. Sometimes, if they’re coming from a tree or a post, if something which is higher or is a little bit of an updraft, yes, they can go in height but they are usually not very strong. What happens though is that they can land on the roof and then they can run in under through the valleys between the corrugations or under the tiles and get into the roof. So, yes, they can get in there but the problem is there’s plenty of timber but no moisture. So, they dry up and dry. However, this is the sort of thing that pest controllers talk about at their annual conference, over a drink when they’re talking about the very, very unusual sort of things. There have been occasions when guttering have been blocked up and there’s a constant pool of water in the guttering, the termites can actually use as their source of water especially at the bottom end of the valley so there’s timber and there’s water and yes, they can get started. As I said, this is so unusual. It’s the sort of thing people just talk about in special occasions.
There have been a couple of notable buildings, The Wentworth Hotel in Sydney, a long, long time ago. We found termites on the first or second floor where the termites had come down a light well and again the drainage wasn’t working terribly well, it was probably leaves or whatever. It was interfering with the drainage after rain and so there was a constant puddle of water. The termites, just what I explained a minute ago, they used the water and they have the timber so they actually did have a nest on the first or second floor of The Wentworth Hotel in Sydney. That happens but it’s very, very, very, very unlikely.
SS: I got it. There were these specific questions about termite swarming but maybe we can just summarize that and say, this is the period where we’re likely to see termite swarming. Not all the termites that we see swarming would necessarily be dangerous ones to timber and to structures, and the likelihood of many of them surviving is extremely low. That does mean they are in your area and so if you’re living in Australia anywhere other than Tasmania, the CSIRO has set that the termite threat is pretty high. What’s the best thing for the home owner to do to be putting in place a line of defense against them?
Whats the best defense?
IS: That sounds like an invitation for my sales pitch.
SS: It was a little bit.
IS: Well, yes. If termites are swarming and you see termites swarming around your place, you’ll see the wings next morning, you’ll know termites are in their area. Well, no surprises, they’re over most of Australia as you said except for Tasmania. So, what it boils down to is a wake-up call, “Hey! Termites are about!” The most prudent thing to do is two things: Put monitoring stations around the outside of your house so that termites that maybe do get started, have got something easy to find in places where they’re looking such as the termite trap. You put them on the ground, termites come out of the ground to go looking for timber in the house and they come out of the ground so they find timber in the termite trap. Once they do that and they build a tunnel to it and block up the hole, it’s very easy to bait. Putting a set of monitoring stations around your house is an easy way to intercept termites that are snooping about and that’s a very easy way to bait them once they do. That’s the first thing you should do.
And 2) Inspect your home
The second thing you should do is inspect your home. You should do it at least once a year. If you live in warmer climates you may want to do it twice a year, but you should at least check all internal mouldings which is easy place to do if you have got a straight one ground place then you would start up the skirting boards, and lower the window frames and the door frames, and marker trays, and mouldings, or paneling. Anywhere that you can find that there is wood inside the house, you tap it or you look at it and see if you can find a hollow sound or see wavy uneven surfaces. You should do that every year anyway. That way if you find them before they do any significant damage then it’s easy to bait them once you found them once you find them inside the house. That’s easier. So, two things: Check the house once a year and use monitors outside all the time.
SS: Okay, got it. Now, dear listeners or dear readers, if you need more resources and if you need some advice and tips do grab Ion’s Free How To Guide. There’s also a free checklist that comes as a part of that, giving you some tips on how to do a home inspection and to do one as well or even possibly better than professional inspectors will do for you because in the of the day, it is your house. So, Ion, I’m just going to push on with some other questions that we’ve received. The next one is from Brett: “I’ve been wondering if a house or perhaps a much bigger structure can be infested by termites from two or more nearby nests. Does this happen?”
IS: Yes, it does. Yes, it does, because termites all emerge and fly off and if conditions are ripe you might get a colony this year and you might get a colony three years later. They both set up and they are both looking for food, and they can both detect the same house, or if there are three, all three of them could attack the same house. It doesn’t usually happen. One is enough really but it can happen and yes it does, even on a house.
We’ve known that there have been termites in a garden shed from a different nest to the house which is only three meters away from the garden shed. That was only just recently. That was two different colonies only in structures three meters apart. A house, front of the house, back of the house, or even in these two nests, both attacking the back of the house, it’s quite possible.
SS: Okay. Moving on and Anne via email says, “I get the impressions that my traps may not work on hard black soil. Should you always soak the ground when first setting them up? I had two traps side by side and the only one with dampness underneath due to a leaky pipe was taken. The other one was completely untouched. What are your thoughts?”
Do termite traps work on hard black soil?
IS: Well, the termites when they find timber in a structure or in a termite trap for instance, when they return to the nest with the glad news that they found something worth eating, I know I’m joking tongue-in-cheek but it’s most seen like this, they have a committee meeting and the committee meeting says to the scout, “Alright, what have you found? How far is it? What sort of timber is it? How big is it? What sort of soil?” If the two competing termites say one’s got damp soil and the other says it’s hard and dry and it’s horrible, well, I guess the construction team is set forward to go to the one with the damp soil. All this boils down to tongue-out-of-cheek is that termites are more likely to build tents through damp soil than they are through hard dry stony stuff.
SS: Okay, got it. So, I suppose that ties in with the reason that the termite traps that you make – and dear listener, you can of course purchase this on termitetrap.com.au that goes without saying – the timber that you use in there has been reported by the CSIRO to be particularly tasty to the termites and would go down very well with the committee meetings if there was a termite trap next to a hard wooden sleeper, for example.
IS: Yes, that would. Termites are more likely to be in damp soil, so getting back to Anne’s question, I suppose. If there was a leaky part and the termites are probably more likely to be snooping around those sorts of damp conditions in Australia or usually on the south side of the house because the sun doesn’t beat down and bike in that area, thus on the north side but on the southern side of the house, the soil, quite often, there’s a bit more shade and might have moisture longer, and if that happens to also be the low side of the house where the floor is closer to the soil, then that is again more conducive to termites.
Termites are not always really discreet and they can attack on the high side of the house and on the northern side of the house so we really need to have the monitors everywhere and because they are everywhere, the termites will be selective. If you give them plenty of choice, they’ll make that choice and then you’ll be out to start biting.
SS: Well, the other part of Anne’s question related to trees. When trying to work out what trees might harbor nests, what signs do we look for?
How to find trees harbouring termites?
IS: Okay, the two main species or genera of termites that eat houses nest in only three places. They nest either underground where you don’t see anything and you won’t be able to find it unless you’re digging or doing something. Under the ground is one place. Inside a hollow tree is another, and the third place is some of them build a mound above the ground. Let’s take the easy one first, the mounds. If you see a mound in your backyard, you don’t really like that too much. It’s hardly a feature. Most people would dig that out or destroy it physically. The termites under the ground, you can’t find it. That’s the hard one that’s why you use monitors, but the trees, that’s such a pretty easy way to solve a problem if you have a hollowed tree.
Now, Anne’s question is, what trees might harbor a nest? Trees that are hollow are the main criteria. The hollowed trees in Australia are mostly gum trees. The gum tree doesn’t normally get hollow until its roots will be old or slow growing and probably three hundred, four hundred, five hundred millimeters diameter. That’s almost up to half a metre in diameter. In that stage, the interior or the hardwood of the tree starts to break down and form a hollow. The second thing that a tree shows when it’s getting old is that they start to get a few dead branches up high, so, if there’s a spar or a dead branch or a couple, there’s a good chance that the internal part of the tree is open and hollow. The termites that are flying in those swarms we began this conversation with, if they find their way into an opening in a dead branch and they get in the hole in a tree, that is absolute termite heaven because inside the tree, there’s no predators because it’s all enclosed. It’s all humid because there’s no loss of humidity through anywhere except that little hole that they got in through, and there’s extra food. Now, the food is the dead part of the tree not the sap wood part.
It doesn’t have to be gum trees. It can be all fruit trees. All plum trees and trees that people have had around their backyards for some time and they may not be fruiting any much more but they’re still here struggling on, quite often they are hollow. Of course in very many areas behind the dividing range away from the coast the old peppercorn tree. The peppercorn trees all over state or it seems and they are prime candidates for termite nests. So, to be sort of general about it all, if trees be enough to be hollow, it doesn’t really matter what species it might be, it is a candidate.
Suppose what we should do now, is say what to do about it. If you suspect a tree that is hollow, you get an auger or a drill and you drill somewhere up around that shoulder height, slightly downward angle in a fairly wide bit somewhere beyond sort of fifteen mm. You can drill this hole into the tree and as you’re leaning on the drill and it suddenly loses resistance, you’ve gone into the hollow part of the tree. When you pull the drill or the auger out, quite often you might find termites in the fluting of the auger. If not, just have a look in that hole and you might see termites start to come out to the hole. The soldiers come out to defend their hole. If nothing happens, you can get a piece of grass and put it inside the hole. Wait half a minute or so and ease about gently and you might fight termites attacking the grass fast with their jaws. If that doesn’t happen, leave the hole until tomorrow and if the hole has been filled up, then you know that something filled it up and it’s almost certain to be termites.
Once you drill the hole, and it is hollow, you might as well poison the inside of the tree anyway so the idea then is to buy some insecticide and a funnel or a plastic tube, or a watering can and a funnel. You pour in thirty or forty liters insecticide or mixture down into the hole in your bait in the tree, and because I asked you to drill somewhere up around head height, it will percolate all the way down. If the nest is parked way up the trunk of the tree, it will be saturated by the chemical going down. If the normal nest is down near the root crown area down somewhere near ankle-height ground level, fifty litres of insecticide will percolate down and kill the queen in the bottom of that nest in the tree where you can’t see it.
The insecticides to use are in the website. I’ll just give their names: Permethrin is one, Bifenthrin is the other, but there are others available. If you find a suspect tree, kill it, you’ve got a hole in it, poison it anyway because the poison will only kill the termites. It does not kill the tree, and the chemical inside tree could last for ten years or more so even if there weren’t any termites in it, you’ve prevented termites getting standard for the next ten years. How’s that for a long winded answer?
SS: That was an excellent answer. There was a lot to it but particularly well-answered. What you mentioned about Bifenthrin – I think I’m pronouncing it right – does lead me on to my second last question. This is from Wayne: “Hi, Ion, I’m finding the info in your emails as arming me with knowledge regards the white army up here.” Good on you Wayne. Wayne is a termite warrior. “I’m in Townsville so I have to deal with the Maxi Termite and I keep a barrier around my home using Bifenthrin. What I’d like to know is, is Termidor the best option against termites here?” There’s another question, but that one first.
Is Termidor the best option for termite control in Townsville?
IS: Okay. Townsville, yes, they have two major species of termites up there is the normal ones that we have all over Australia which are also in Townsville and go even up around Darwin, but the Maxi Termites he’s referring to is called the Mastotermes. Mastotermes is bigger than half an inch long. You’d almost hear them walk.
These Maxi Termites or Mastotermes, they do a lot of damage very quickly. The Bifenthrin that he’s putting around as a barrier around the house is a repellant insecticide and they won’t travel through those poison soil. If you’ve got a brick wall or a pier or a post that’s coming up out of the soil and you surround that pier or alongside that wall with a poison barrier that might be say a hundred mil deep and a hundred fifty mil wide that’s four inches deep six inches wide. You’ve got a fair trench, if you like, of poison soil around that. The termites whether it’s the Maxis or Mastos, or the Coptos which is the other major one, they will not travel through that poison soil. However, the dog gets under there and he scratches the way, or he scratches near the top of that soil and therefore the barrier’s breached by new soil or the barrier’s been voided by being washed away by the dog. The barriers do need to be checked and they probably need to be replenished. Bifenthrin is one of the good ones.
He asked also about Termidor. Well, Termidor is a non-repellant barrier. Sorry, to get too technical here but Bifenthrin they won’t go through it, Termidor they will go through it because it’s not repellant. They’ve been going through it by picking up doses of Termidor and that’s starting to kill them and they cannibalize each other. The theory is that the cannibalized bits ends up somewhere back at the queen, and she gets cannibalized bits of poisoned termites as well as timber and other food, and she dies and that kills the nest. Termidor is theoretically better and maybe it is for that reason but if they can’t get in the house because they won’t go through the Bifenthrin, then they can’t get in the house, so, your choice.
I want to say one more thing about Termidor. Termidor is the chemical that you would use for Mastotermes. The bait that we saw, the bait for the rest of the termites in Australia, the Coptos and Schedos. Our Chlorflurazuron, bait which we sell doesn’t work on the Mastos. Termidor at three mils per litre of water can be trickled into where the Mastos are busy eating into timbers or whatever they’re eating. You can trickle the Termidor into it at that three mils per liter and that will be taken back and cannibalized and goes on until such time as the nest is killed. The good thing about the Mastos is they don’t usually build big nests. They have smaller nests and after they’ve been going for a while, they part ways. One group will say, “We’re in charge here!” and they set up a separate colony. Termidor does works quite well because they don’t have to transfer back very big distances. That’s been a bit complicated but that’s the way that part goes and you’ll say the second half of that question.
Termite swarms and thermal imaging
SS: Yes, and this I find the thought of quite fascinating. “Why isn’t thermal imaging used in the evening to try and locate a nest? With swarming season about to hit, I’m laying down the barriers around the home again to combat any that my land against the house.” Thermal Imaging.
IS: Thermal imaging. Okay, thermal imaging is a sort of camera and it is set up in the room, functions from the wall, and you take a photograph of the wall. What comes up in the photograph is a sort of heat map. The heat map shows that there’s difference or variations of the temperature on the wall. The thermal imaging camera is only taking photograph of the actual surface so at the end of the day, the temperature pretty much is all over the wall and you wouldn’t be able to pick much difference. In the early morning or a cool day, there will be more variations shown.
Even turning the air conditioner on can spoil it all because if you have the air conditioner on, the whole of the internal surfaces is the same temperature because the air conditioner is drying it out and also cooling it. As I say, you won’t necessarily be able get a heat map that shows anything that check the same color all the way over. When they do get it right, you can imagine that if a stud inside a plaster wall, if the termites are in that stud and they’re carrying their mud mixture up and down and their dead bodies and moisture is running there, then some of that might seep out through the stud into the plaster and seep its way through to the surface. If it does, then you can get a different map on your wall. You’ll be able to see the studs that are affected by termites. Of course in some occasions, the mud mass that termites use as a rehydration thing can be wiped between two studs down on the floor or could be high for that matter, and this whole mud mass can show up as a different color on the thermal imaging camera and that means, “Hey!, there’s something in there.” We investigate it and find the termites in there and you treat them there where they are.
SS: Okay. Wayne, we love the way you’re thinking and we need more termite warriors like you. I’m just going to press on to one last little question that’s been sent through from Dale. I’m going to ask this because the echidna is probably my favorite animal. Do you know if echidnas eat termites?
Do echidnas eat termites?
IS: Yes, they do. I think they were born for it. Echidnas are that little hedgehog thing or spiny ant eater and their sole mission in life is to eat insects. What they do is they can dig in to side of a burrow of a termite mound if you like, or if they find a colony below ground because they got superior sniffing abilities to humans. If they can dig in to a top of a termite nest, it’s like Tim Tams for echidnas. They’re on our side. Echidnas do eat them.
I have a little side on this one. The longer you live you’ve got more stories to tell. The reptile park just out north of Gosford in Sydney, and the lady rang me up one day. She said she’s trying to feed her Echidna’s termites. Is there a good way to capture large numbers of termites? I suggested to her that she gets corrugated cardboard and she takes it out into the bush land in various places and put corrugated cardboard in sort of containers made of timber, and just lie it on the forest floor in leafy areas and then when the termites get into it they start eating the corrugated cardboards by hundreds and thousands of them. You go over on the right tasteful baits and you take a new one out, pick up the old one which is loaded with termites, put the new ones in place and take the loaded one back to the echidnas. She rang me up a bit months later and said, “That’s looking really well but we’re looking more and more baits because we got more and more echidnas.”
SS: There you go! Happy echidnas! I think that every Australian household that has a backyard should possibly have a pet echidna or as a termite control measure. I think they’re just delightful little animals and underrated.
IS: Underrated and they’re cute too!
SS: Yes, they’re cute. They’re a bit dangerous in the sharpness factor. I mean you wouldn’t want to accidentally stand or step on one, or sit on one.
Yes, they’re gorgeous to look at. There we go, so that was very good, Ion. I’m just going to sign off here and tell the listeners or the readers that if they want to get more information, they can do that on our website, termitetrap.com.au. They can send us a question for answering through these podcasts at info @ termitetrap.com.au. Over on the website, you’ll also find a termite identification service and don’t forget to grab Ion’s sixteen-page Do-It-Yourself How To Guide. It’s a great read and it’ll give you a lot of information on how you can defend your own home against termites.
IS: There are pictures there too!
SS: There are lots and lots of easy to consume diagrams and pictures. It’s an easy read. You’ll do it over a cup of tea and a Tim Tam.
SS: Good on you, Ion
IS: Thanks very much.
SS: Chat to you soon.
IS: Bye now.