UF researchers: Termites aren't swarming, but that doesn't mean they're not munching

April 27, 2009

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Chew on this: Just because you haven’t seen termite swarms in or around your house, doesn’t mean they’re not busily devouring it.

It’s been about five years since the southeastern U.S. saw a good termite swarm season like those that were once common, University of Florida researchers say. Swarms of termites fly from their nests to mate and start new colonies.

In the last few years, termites have swarmed maybe two or three days, but nothing like the frequent, repeated swarms that used to occur, said Phil Koehler, an urban entomology professor with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Koehler believes he knows why swarms are scarce. Pest control operators have begun to see wingless, crawling termites. Termites don’t need to fly to mate, so rather than swarming, they’re crawling off by the thousands to form new colonies, he said.

That means homeowners and even pest control experts can miss these events, because no telltale wings are left behind. And without evidence of infestation, homeowners may not get the warning they need.

“It’s like having a smoke alarm without a battery in it,” Koehler said. “If you have termites right now, you could have significant damage and not have any sign of it.”

Floridians deal with two main types of termites: subterranean termites, which tunnel from moist underground places and attack homes from the ground up; and drywood termites, which are found in the dry wood of the house. Both species can go undetected until they’ve done extensive damage to a home.

Typically, subterranean termites swarm from January until about April while their drywood counterparts have a peak swarming time in June and July.

Koehler and research associate scientist Roberto Pereira believe two factors have kept termite swarms to a minimum: better pest control methods and drought conditions in the southeastern U.S.

Despite recent heavy rains and even flooding in some areas, much of Florida remains under severe drought conditions, according to IFAS’ Southeast Climate Consortium.

When deprived of water, subterranean termites stay underground searching for it, Koehler said, which is why he believes the drought is at least partly to blame for the dearth of swarms. Koehler and Pereira theorize that drought conditions have forced termites underground for so long that by the time they emerge, they’ve lost their wings.

If limited swarming continues, it would underscore the need for homeowners to seek professional termite treatment, he said.

The state’s building codes were strengthened in 2001 to require that new construction include termite protection. In 2004, the state mandated that builders choose termite-protection products from a list of 64 proven effective in Florida.

Even with those rules, about half of Florida’s homeowners have no termite protection, Koehler said.

“It’s pretty cheap to prevent termites, but expensive if you get them,” Pereira said.

Florida Pest Control President D.R. Sapp Jr., whose company’s 20 offices cover much of Florida, said he agrees with researchers’ theories about better controls and climate.

“It used to be when termites started swarming, our phones would ring off the hook,” he said. “But termites haven’t left, they’re still here. They just don’t rear their heads and make their presence known as they did in the past.”