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  • Michael Kesecker
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Some of our customers are surprised to learn that there are several types of termites in our neighborhood and that infestations, damage and treatments can vary greatly. So! Here is everything you ever wanted to know about termites and never dared to ask… 

Termites are small xylophagous (wood eating) insects that consume dead wood and other wood bi-products containing cellulose like cardboard, paper, laminates and other wood based composites. Like ants and bees, termites are eusocial insects with generally one queen, soldiers to defend the colony and mostly workers who forage and feed all the members of the colony. The male (or king) will die shortly after mating with the queen who will be pregnant for the remained of her life (15 to 30 years depending on specie). Soldiers and workers are all drones and the workers are the ones who actually cause wood damage, ingest the wood and feed others through regurgitation known as trophallaxis.

Termites have protozoa in their intestinal tract that allows them to digest wood cellulose. Curiously, they are not born with these protozoa in their gut, but acquire it through feeding from others. Lab research has shown that termites without protozoa will die of starvation, even when fed wood cellulose.

What Are Termite Swarms?

In addition to the queen, king, soldiers and workers, and once the colony is big and mature enough, some of the colony members will grow sexual organs and wings to become winged reproductive males and females also known as Alates (future kings and queens). Once fully developed, they will patiently wait for the perfect time to fly or swarm. Their sole purpose during the swarm is to mate and start a new colony. Swarmers will be fed by workers until the swarm occurs and they will not feed during the swarm. Termite alates swarm in large numbers, as their chances of survival are quite small. Most will fall prey to predators (birds, other insects, spiders, lizards, frogs, etc.), many will die of dehydration or exhaustion in the wrong environment before they can mate, and the few lucky ones to find a mate may not find a suitable place to start a colony. Yet in spite of insurmountable odds, some do survive to start new colonies.

Swarms occur several times a year between early spring and late fall. Customers often ask if swarming termites sting or bite; But termites do not have any biting or stinging mouth parts, do not feed on blood and are not interested in human or pet skin. Termites aren’t even interested in live trees and only feed on dead wood. The good news is that they do not carry nasty virus or bacterial diseases like some rodents or blood-sucking insects (mosquitoes, fleas, ticks and bed bugs to name a few). They are even picky on their choice of wood and will favor softer sappier pinewood over hardwood, younger redwood or cedar. They will avoid the hardest and driest old-growth redwood.

Subterranean termite swarmers are small (1/4 to 3/8th of an inch) and black with see-through wings.

Drywood termite swarmers are medium (1/2 to 5/8th of an inch) and maroon with see through wings.

Dampwood termite swarmers are large (3/4 to 1 inch) and brown with a red/orange head and brown see through wings

Where do Termites Come From?

Termites dating back to the cretaceous period (125 million years ago) have been excavated, and well-preserved termites were found in amber (fossilized tree sap) in the Baltics. In entomology, termites belong to the Isoptera order and according to Cornell University; there are 2761 known species of termites. Termites are indigenous to warmer climates and depending of the specie, colonies can have millions of members and several queens with secondary colonies. Termites have a place in our ecosystem by braking down dead trees and returning them as carbon rich nutrients to the soil. Unfortunately termites don’t distinguish dead trees from lumber and are pests when they infest structures. The word “termite” comes from Latin "termes" and from Greek "tetranien", meaning "a worm eating wood".

In the US, Termites are present in most coastal and southern states:

  1. a)The most popular is the Subterranean termite with several species depending on the location
  2. b)The Drywood termite found in southern states from Virginia to California
  3. c)The Formosan termite found in coastal areas from North Carolina to southern Texas and Hawaii
  4. d)The Dampwood termite found in the southwest, pacific coast states, Florida and Hawaii

In Northern California the three most common and indigenous species of termites are: Subterranean, Drywood and Dampwood termites. Each has a different pattern of infestation, different frass or debris and require different treatments, the details of which are explained below.

Subterranean Termites:

Common in California is the Western Subterranean Termite (Reticultermes Hesperus). These termites nest in the ground and infest wood below & above ground (debris, fences and structures). It is a common misconception that termites do not eat redwood or cedar. They favor softer woods like douglas fir and poplar, they will eat any and all dead wood that is to their liking. Because redwood and cedar have a red tannin with a bitter taste, termites will avoid it when the wood is recently cut. But with time the tannin and bitter taste will dissipate and termite will eventually eat redwood and cedar. Additionally, termites prefer softer sappier wood to harder denser fibers and knots in the wood. This is why it is rear to find them in old growth redwood.

Research from UC Riverside and UC Berkeley has shown that Subterranean Termites will travel long distances, leaving trails of pheromones as markers for colony members to reach the food source. Though they don’t travel long distance at once, they pass the foraged food from one termite to another until it reaches the nest where most colony members and the queen live. Termite drones, workers and soldiers, and the queen are generally whitish or cream colored, which is why they are sometimes called “white ants”. They are cryptobiotic, meaning they live in a dark and enclosed environment with a specific humidity and temperature. That is why they build mud tubes, against foundations, posts and sometimes free standing, to reach the food source.

Treatment entails injecting a registered termiticide in soil in areas of infestation and around the exterior perimeter of the structure. Marin Termite uses minimal impact Altriset or Termidor termiticides and provides a 5-year warranty against re-infestations of subterranean termites with complete perimeter treatments. Both Altriset and Termidor are water based products that are odorless, colorless and tasteless termiticide and attract termites without impacting the soil, plants or emanating any smell, vapors or fumes. Other termiticides like borate based TimBor or Boracare and orange oil are not used for subterranean termite treatments as they are ineffective against subterranean termites and toxic to plants. Subterranean termites will often swarm on warm days following a rainfall from early spring to early fall.

Drywood Termites:

Indigenous to California, the Bay Area and Marin County, the Pacific Dark Western Drywood Termite (Incistermes Minor) from the Kalotermitidae family is generally found infesting the warmer side of structures. Unlike their subterranean cousins, the whole colony, queen, soldiers and workers, all live within the infested wood members without any ground contacts. Drywood termites infest the structure aerially by flying into cracks and crevices or vents. Drywood termites swarm in hot static weather in the summer or early fall (Indian summer). As their name indicates, they favor a hotter and drier environment with certain air moisture content often found near coastal areas. In Marin County, they are most often found near Tiburon, Sausalito, Stinson Beach, Bolinas and Point Reyes, but also occasionally infest other areas.

Drywood termites carve galleries within the wood members producing fecal pellets that are stored in some areas. When Drywood Termite workers decide do some “spring cleaning” they clear some of the galleries by carving a kick-out hole on the surface of the wood through which they expel the pellets then re-plugging the holes with pellets. When this happens in wall voids, attics or crawlspaces, the infestation may remain undetected until it is exposed or discovered. Sometimes, the pellets are expelled into living areas though the sheetrock, door or window trims or from open beam ceilings. For small infestations, a local treatment consists in injecting infested wood members with Termidor termiticide and treating topically the infested wood with a borate termiticide (TimBor or BoraCare). Other termiticides such as Premise 75, Optigard-ZT, XT-2000 orange oil are less succesful and are often used with Termidor and/or TimBor or BoraCare. For larger infestations or inaccessible areas like attics and ceilings, the structure needs to be tented and fumigated with Sulfuryl Fluoride fumigant such as Vikane or Zythor.

Dampwood Termites:

Indigenous to Northern California, Oregon and Southern Washington states, the Pacific Dampwood (or Rottenwood) Termite (Zootermopsis Angusticollis) is one of the largest varieties of termites on the planet at 30 millimeters with wings. This variety of termite requires a higher moisture concentration to infest wood members and are most often found in fallen trees and stumps in the forest and by water sources (creeks, streams, ponds, rivers, lakes).

Occasionally they infest homes with plumbing leaks (toilets, showers, kitchen and laundry rooms) or with wet faulty grade such as built-up planters and exterior soil grade against wood siding. We also find them in areas of moisture intrusion like below leaking roofs, skylights, faulty flashing at windows, doors and exterior siding.

Treatment includes removing the moisture source and water proofing areas of infestation as well as treating with a borate based fungicide/termiticide like TimBor or BoraCare. Dampwood termites swarm in early to late fall shortly before sunset because it is the warmest time of day. They are big and attracted to lights like most insects and are often found caught in spider webs near outside lights on indoors if any windows, doors or skylights are slightly open.

How Can I Prevent Termite Infestations?

Since termites are indigenous to California, the best we can do is to deter them from infesting our homes:

  1. a)Keeping crawlspaces clean and free of moisture and debris
  2. b)Fix any plumbing, roof, window and door leaks
  3. c)Lower soil grades to avoid earthwood contacts with 3 inch clearance between soil and wood
  4. d)Keeping the exterior of the house well sealed, painted or stained
  5. e)Don’t store wood piles, compost and other wood bi-products in subarea or against the house
  6. f)Don’t build planter beds against the house and adjust sprinklers to avoid spraying the building

And have a periodic inspection every 3 to 4 years. It is long enough for a trained professional to detect infestations and not too long for termites to cause substantial structural damage. A limited inspection and a treatment is less costly than extensive structural damage found after many years of infestation.