Bug Out

Rains and rising temperatures mean termites are ready to dig in.

April 18, 2004|By Shruti Mathur | Shruti Mathur,SUN STAFF

As the fresh bloom of springtime settles on the Baltimore area, an unwelcome guest might be creeping its way into local homes.

Termites typically beset the Mid-Atlantic region and the South from March to June, and Maryland residents have identified the pests in and around their homes this season. Rising temperatures and the recent rain are triggering the annual termite mating flight, ominously referred to as the swarming season.

Often, homeowners become aware of the problem when they see swarms of the pests. The dense black clusters they travel in might resemble a swarm of flying ants, but termites are smaller and have straight antennae in contrast to the elbow antennae of ants. They also have two pairs of wings that are of equal size; ants have larger front wings.

Eastern subterranean termites are the only species found in the state, according to Maryland agriculture officials.

Residents should be concerned if they see swarms of termites near their homes, which typically signal that other termites are busily chewing nearby. They might seem tiny and harmless, with their maggot-like appearance, but they are capable of waging war on homes by eating through wood and other materials such as furniture, paper, books, boxes and carpet backing.

They often chew away behind walls, in garages and under floorboards, burrowing their way out of their underground colonies and into paper-thin crevices.

Experts advise homeowners to routinely check the perimeters of their house for cracks in the foundation and to make sure that no piles of wood or mulch are leaning against the structure, because they often serve as a gateway for termites.

Homeowners also can test the insides of their homes for termite damage by tapping the baseboards and walls lightly with a screwdriver to determine whether they sound hollow.

Termites can travel up to 150 feet. It is probable, experts said, that termites lurking in one home could originate from a colony that is 15 feet under a neighboring house.

With an insatiable hunger for the cellulose that is found in wood, these quarter- to eighth-inch insects cause more damage to American homes than floods and fires combined.

According to the National Pest Management Association, a trade group representing 80 percent of the professional pest management industry, termite-related property damage totals more than $1.5 billion a year to more than 600,000 homes nationwide.

Homeowners insurance often covers losses from fires and storms, but repairs of termite damage often aren't included.

Exterminators use liquid and baiting systems. Dennis Palardy Jr., a local inspector for the pest control company Terminix, said the liquid treatment begins working right away and is intended to cover as much of the house as possible. Baiting is a one- to two-year process that aims to exterminate the colony.

"When it boils down to it, both have the same effect, but the liquid treatment risks gaps [in application around the perimeter of the house and basement] and can possibly lead to re-infestation later on," Palardy said. "The baiting is more visual because you can actually see the activity in the underground wood-monitoring stations that the bait sits in."

The cost of the treatments fluctuates, depending on the size and age of the home, but baiting often costs twice as much as the liquid technique. Estimates for a typical two-story, three-bedroom Baltimorean rowhouse run from $400 to $700 for a liquid treatment and about $1,100 for baiting, said Bruce Morgan of Atlas Exterminator, a Towson pest-control company.

Detecting the presence of termites might be the hardest part for consumers. Many times, a homeowner can identify a termite problem only after significant damage has been done.

Initial inspections typically are free. Palardy estimates that about one in 10 inspections he conducts reveals termite activity.

"I have been in this business for 26 years, and I could have termites in my own house and wouldn't even know it unless I did a complete visual inspection," said Morgan, who started with Atlas Exterminators as an apprentice and is now a vice president.

It is not unusual, he said, to get calls from distraught homeowners who have seen swarm activities around their homes. Experts at the University of Maryland's Cooperative Extension said consumer calls about termites have increased during the past few weeks.

"Termites are ubiquitous in the soil, and it's actually not abnormal to see swarming outside," Morgan said. "It's when they are inside that you know you have a problem."

Jeannette Castronova, a Harford County resident, became suspicious of termite activity two years ago when she noticed mysterious wet spots on the framed prints that hung on her living room wall.

"I was thinking, `Our roof is new. How could it be leaking?' I was looking at my cats puzzled because the height was definitely too high for them to climb," she said.

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