When Amy Wood noticed what looked to be ants with wings swarming around her garage, she had no idea that her property was under attack.
With a last name like Wood, wouldn't it be ironic if termites were the enemy?
Unfortunately, for Wood, they were. And even after spending $1,000 to rid her place of the insects, they still swarmed the next spring and a follow-up treatment was needed.
The only symptom that termites were eating away at her garage came when she noticed the swarming - a common way people find out there's a problem. But many homeowners don't realize anything's wrong until there's visible damage - or even audible clues.
Homeowners have heard their floors start creaking, spotted mud tubing in cracks, or lifted carpet to see munched wood. Even a stone, vinyl-sided or concrete home is no guarantee of a residence being termite proof. Tenacious termites target any opening and any wood - trusses, framing, stucco, beams, and the tiniest of cracks.
"There's no one perfect shield. A single control measure is generally noneffective," said Kevin Powell, research analyst and wood products specialist at the National Association of Homebuilders Research Center in Upper Marlboro.
"I was surprised," said Amy Wood, who's since moved. "My grandmother had them at her farmhouse in Monkton. They ate the foundation totally. She never saw them. Finally, she noticed what she said were `bugs' and complained, but all the wood floors were ruined by then. She needed new floors and supports."
Now is prime termite season. The ground is warm and wet, new mulch is baking in the sun, fresh growth is abundant - all luring termites closer and closer to your home. The chief American wood destroyers, termites ravage 1.5 million structures annually, causing $1 billion in damage.
"Don't wait if you think there's a problem. Check it out," Wood said.
Termite experts and entomologists say the battle has to be fought on many fronts - from pre-construction to maintenance.
"You need an integrated approach, with many parties being responsible," Powell said.
"Usually, homeowners aren't familiar with termites. No one cares or studies them. They don't want to know," said Dennis Butler, a 25-year industry veteran and president of Environtec pest control service in Belcamp.
The key to fighting termites is dryness. Dry soil near the foundation, dry walls, dry floors and dry roofs. That means keeping rain gutters clean and flowing correctly, fixing leaky drains, using air conditioning receptacles properly and making sure any slopes or water pumps direct water away from the edge of the house, not toward it.
The University of Maryland's Extension Service says plants should be at least 3 feet from the home and clipped to allow 18 inches of clear space between foliage and the house. And the expected height of a tree should equal its distance from the foundation. In other words, if the tree is expected to grow to 20 feet, then plant it 20 feet away from the home.
Mulch is another excellent source of moisture and a treat that termites crave. That means it's a great termite conduit if it's piled against the side of a home.
The design should also be open enough to allow for easy inspections. Soil treatments should be done prior to pouring a foundation slab; wood scraps shouldn't be buried on the property; and treated woods should be used when possible. Finally, homeowners should maintain the home and schedule inspections throughout the lifetime of the home, Powell said.
Even with safeguards, it can be a tough battle.
Maryland's termites can build 12 to 14 colonies per acre, with 750,000 to 1 million termites per colony. Termites will travel from 150 to 200 feet to find food. And they're a hidden enemy.
"Sometimes it's so bad you wonder what's holding the floor up," said George Fidler, who works for Ehrlich Pest Control as its wood-destroying-insect division manager.
"Termites can make mud tubes through cracks as small as one-thirty-second of an inch. It's impossible to eliminate all the cracks," Powell said.
When prevention isn't enough, technicians fight termites in two major ways.
A new method revolutionizing the business is called baiting. This method kills termites where they start - in their colonies.
Baiting is done in steps. First, pest control operators insert wood-based "stations" into the ground at 12- to 18-inch intervals from a home's foundation. The strips, enclosed in child-resistant tubes, are checked every few weeks for "hits" or signs of eating.
If there is a hit - the strips are replaced with chemical baits.
"Preventive baiting is like having an alarm system in your home," Butler said. "You have zones, triggered by sensors. Termite bait is similar. It monitors the perimeter of the home and monitors an invasion like an alarm system. It's proactive, without using chemicals until there's a reason to."