The sad truth is that your home might be infested with termites and it may be years before visible signs of damage alert you.
Since these wood-eating social insects look like "white ants" to the untrained eye, termites have been confused with ants by those who do not understand the biology. Different species of termites have different habits, but they all relentlessly ingest more than their weight in wood—your wood—without leaving easily-detectable damage. (Here's a start on the biology: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Termites)
Termites can cause significant structural damage to a property. Since Canadian homes are commonly wood-frame structures with brick or siding veneer, few properties are completely immune. Termites infestations are expensive:
- The cost of repairing structural damage caused by wood-devouring termites, coupled with the cost of "termite-proofing" the property by removing all wood-soil interfaces, wood piles and some types of landscaping, make termite attacks expensive, but the cost does not stop there.
- Current treatment for infestation requires chemical poisoning of the soil to dissuade termites from entering the home. This interior and exterior treatment of the soil under the house can involve thousands of dollars for the initial soil poisoning and may require follow-up treatments if spot attacks occur in the future.
- Property value may also be affected if proof of eradication and prevention are not provided to prospective buyers. In some cases, a stigma may remain.
The Location Factor The real estate value mantra of "location, location, location" also applies to termite invasions. The location of a property relative to its distance from existing infestations may be considered a value factor, particularly if the municipality involved does little or nothing to stop or at least slow the spread of these relentless wood-eating insects.
In a recent email, Dr. Timothy Myles, Canada's leading termite control research scientist and, currently, Termite Control Officer for the City of Guelph, Ontario, shared observations of termite management problems across the country, including:
- In Alberta, localized infestations were reported in Medicine Hat and as far north as Edmonton, but the details and status of spreading are unknown.
- In southern British Columbia, a native species is infesting Vancouver Island, the lower mainland and inland river valleys, including the Okanagan River basin. Improved control methods will help, but the existence of native populations place eradication out of reach.
- No conclusive reports from Manitoba, but a Winnipeg infestation detected in cursory sampling in 1991 has probably spread.
- In Ontario, the non-native subterranean species, which was first sighted 70 years ago on Point Pelee and in the City of Toronto, has "spread from these points of entry and continue to spread at an accelerated pace, now threatening almost all urban areas of southern Ontario."
With no natural predators and little or no municipal termite control activity, there is nothing to halt or slow the steady migration of subterranean termites. Although this species does not seem to create new colonies through a flying stage, termite migration is dramatically escalated by human intervention. What wood have you moved lately?
Decades ago, a wide-scale Ontario initiative launched by Toronto and involving many other cities and the provincial funding established termite control bylaws to slow the spread and to offer financial relief for affected property owners. This program ran for 20 years, until it fell victim to funding cuts a few years ago, leaving property owners to fend for themselves.
"We should go back in time to the point where [governments] realized that this is a huge problem—that this is probably equivalent to all the fire damage in all the municipalities across the province and it is just getting worse," said Myles, who is internationally recognized as a leading researcher on termite control and management. "It is preposterous that the government—both municipalities and the province, the [Ontario Ministry of the Environment]—got out of it. A lot more could be done for homeowners because, when they get [termites], they say, 'What do I do and what help is there?' The answer is, 'There is no help. Look in the phone book under exterminator.' That's it. There is absolutely nothing by the federal government, the province or cities any more."
- These termites do not have recognizable nests or a central queen. This guerilla-like nature makes termites hard for individual property owners to control. Concerted efforts by municipalities can make a difference. In Guelph, termite infestations have been mapped to locate infected areas which are managed to achieve containment and reduction.
- When you first see a termite shelter tube, the insects have probably been in your house for at least a couple of years, if not longer. Regular investigation of basement areas and removal of clutter inside and out can reduce termite-friendly environments and aid early detection.
- Wood-soil contact outside and foundation cracks are two entry opportunities for termites, but termite-contaminated wood and furniture can also give termites access to your home.
- In the United States, there are a number of chemical treatments, but in Canada only one neurotoxin is available.
- Chemical treatment does poison the soil around the house and under the foundation, but it does not poison termites or disadvantage neighbours, according to Myles: "Isolate the ones in the house, which will then dry out, and the ones in the yard will just go away. When you say 'go away,' a lot of people say, 'Oh, you're chasing them to the neighbour's house, but that whole concept of chasing them to the neighbour's house I don't agree with. [Termites] are already at the neighbour's house and in extensive soil tunnelling throughout the entire block. You are not chasing them you're just saying, 'Instead of feeding on this house today, go back to the rest of the extensive tunnel system you've got on the whole block.' It is never going to be an isolated thing; it is going to be whole contiguous parts of neighbourhoods that have them."
Myles divides termite areas into two types based on treatment approaches:
- Infested areas too large for area-wide management programs like British Columbia, Ontario's Essex County and Toronto where better control products will provide licensed pest control experts with improved tools.
- Infested areas where area-wide management programs can contain, suppress and eradicate termites. These areas include Alberta, Winnipeg, GTA suburbs and southern Ontario towns including Guelph, Innisfil, Oshawa, Oakville and Mississauga. Guelph alone provides assistance and coordinates the needs of individual property owners with the community goal of eradication.
How can the human spread of termites be stopped?
- Have you moved firewood, a dog house or other wooden objects to or from your property? What garage sale goodies also transported termites to your home—it only takes a few in an infected piece of wood.
- Garden clubs and community groups can take special care that plants like rose bushes do not contain termites and educate homeowners in the process.
- Ratepayer groups can use the need for community-wide termite control as a local rallying cry to raise support and bring property owners together to fight a common enemy.
- New home construction includes some precautions against termite invasion, but above-code remedies like metal and sand barriers are required for extra protection.
- Rouse local politicians to champion this cause which threatens our homes and affordability.
Myles insists: "It is just insane not to do area-wide management because this [infestation] will just spread and engulf the city if we don't nip it in the bud. There are 20 municipalities that are in the position of nipping it in the bud...it makes more sense to be where we could actually eradicate them."
Myles continues to research control alternatives. Currently, his trap-treat-release program shows promise if he can find funding to continue the 20-year search for practical control alternatives to the current chemical solution.
"This is huge—this is people's homes and everybody is paying property taxes and what are they getting for that?" said Myles. "Well, 20% of all your property taxes are going to fire departments…and there should be just as many little termite labs…If you are a buyer, the main thing is you must be aware that this is a big problem that can impact the value of your property."
The take-home message is simple, according to Myles:
- Don't feed the termites, and
- Don't move the termites, and
- Don't sell a termite-infested house.