Everything to Know About Termites in California

aerial view of california usa with overlay of termites image

Termites in California can cause a lot of damage to homes and other structures. There are at least 23 species of termites found throughout the Golden State, and it is important to know how to identify and address termite infestations early on. Here is everything you need to know about termites in California.

While termites do contribute to the health of California’s forests by decomposing woody debris, enhancing the soil, and feeding predators, there are some species that can seriously affect wooden structures, resulting in billions of dollars of damage to homes nationwide.

What Do Termites Look Like in California?

Termites vary in appearance depending on the species and their position or caste in the colony.

Termite Castes

graphic showing caste of termite
Photo Credit: Juan Rodriguez

The termite caste system consists of different groups with specific roles within the colony.

  • Swarmers: The winged reproductive termites swarm during mating season and establish new colonies. The queen is the largest member with an enlarged abdomen. She lays eggs everyday to grow the colony.
  • Soldiers: These termites defend the colony and alert the others to threats. They have large heads and strong jaws.
  • Workers: The majority of the colony is made up of workers. They are smaller than soldiers and light in color. They are responsible for gathering food and building and repairing the nest as well as feeding the other members of the colony.

Termites Common in California

Dampwood, drywood, and subterranean are the types of termites commonly found in California:

  • Dampwood termites: These termites range in size from about 1/2 inch to 5/8 inch and have nymphs instead of workers. Nymphs are cream-colored, have an oval shape, and are long and thin. Soldiers have a brown tint and a characteristic big head with mandibles (pincers) in the front.
  • Drywood termites: Drywood swarmers have two pairs of dark, veiny wings, which they shed once they establish a new colony. They vary in size, from 1/4 inch for workers up to 1 inch for the queen. Drywood termite workers are creamy white with small heads while the soldiers have large heads that are darker than the rest of their pale bodies.
    • Western drywood termite (Incisitermes minor)
graphic showing Subterranean Termites in a house
Photo Credit: Juan Rodriguez
  • Subterranean termites: The swarmers, or alates, are approximately 1/4 to 1/2 inch long and dark brown to black. They have two sets of white, virtually translucent wings that are roughly equal in size. In contrast, the workers are wingless, cream-colored, and no longer than 1/4 inch.

Termites in Southern California

western drywood termite (Incisitermes minor)
Drywood Termite
Photo Credit: Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University, Bugwood.org / CC BY 3.0 US

Drywood termites: The drywood termite is a prevalent termite species in southern California, particularly in desert locales and some coastal areas. There are a number of places where drywood termites like to hide in buildings, including walls, garages, and attics.

Subterranean termites: In southern California, subterranean termites are as common as drywood termites. While drywood termites infest and destroy dry, untreated wood, subterranean termites build enormous colonies underground.

Termites in Central California

dead dampwood termite on a cloth
Dampwood Termite
Photo Credit: Don Loarie / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Being in the middle of it all, central California has the honor of housing the three main types of termites currently in the state.

  • Dampwood termites: Despite being widely distributed throughout the state, dampwood termites are primarily found in cooler, humid coastal areas due to their high moisture requirements. They typically infest decomposing wood dampened by soil contact or exposure to water from old gutters damaging your home.
  • Drywood termites: On the other hand, these termites infest and damage dry wood. Unlike subterranean termites, they do not require contact with soil. Drywood termites are commonly found in the hidden areas of a house. Check for signs of termites in attics, garages, and walls to protect your home.
  • Subterranean termites: Known for constructing extensive underground colonies, they are a significant concern for homeowners in central California due to their destructive behavior. They create tunnels and termite tubes to reach their food sources, including the wooden structure of your home.

Termites in Northern California

Arid-Land Subterranean Termites on sand
Arid-Land Subterranean Termites
Photo Credit: Andrey Zharkikh / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

In the northern portion of California, the type of termite you’re likely to encounter can vary depending on where you live. Termites in this part of the state have been found as high as 8,000 feet in elevation. Although drywood and subterranean termites are most common in northern California, dampwood termites are not uncommon along the coast.

  • Dampwood termites: While not as common in northern California, homes along the coast or with damage from water leaks can attract them. Compared to other species, these termites are bigger and can use their large pincers to devour wood quickly. If your home has poor ventilation plumbing leaks, or you need to improve drainage in your yard, it becomes susceptible to infestation.
  • Drywood termites: These termites are most common in the Central Valley and along the coast. Drywood termites are often found hiding in attics and basements and are drawn to dry wood. You can find these termites in furniture, decks, fences, and even utility poles. They don’t build mud tubes, but you’ll find frass or termite droppings that look like tiny pellets.
  • Subterranean termites: These are the most destructive termites in northern California. They build colonies underground and infest rotting wood like tree stumps. Then they build mud tubes to protect themselves as they devour the interior of your home. Other signs of a termite infestation in your home include discarded wings and hollow-sounding wood.

How Common Are Termites in California?

Termite Infestation Probability Map, Adapted from the 2021 International Residential Code
Photo Credit: PNNL

Basically, they’re everywhere. Due to California’s abundant wood resources, high humidity, and warm temperatures, termites are common throughout the state. 

With the exception of the northernmost regions, California is considered a high-risk state for termite infestation (see above). Further, numerous termite species contribute to the state’s widespread distribution of termites.

When Do Termites Swarm in California?

Termites in California typically swarm on warm days after it rains, although swarms can also pop up in the fall and winter. The swarming season for termites largely depends on the species and can vary across the state.

For example, you’ll usually spot drywood termites swarming at night in June and July, but in southern California, you’ll find drywood termite swarms during the day in the fall between September and November.

Dampwood termites:

  • Pacific dampwood termites swarm around sunset from August to October.
  • Nevada dampwood termites also swarm around sunset but in springtime in northern California and in summer and early fall in coastal areas.

Drywood termites: 

  • Drywood termites prefer to swarm at night from June to September across California.

Subterranean termites:

  • Desert subterranean termites swarm from July to September. Arid land subterranean termites come out during the day, while their desert kin prefers swarming at night.
  • Formosan termites are known to swarm at night from May to July.
  • Western subterranean termites swarm in the daytime during the rainy seasons in early spring, fall, and winter.

Treating Termites in California

In California, treating termites is essential to avoid damage to houses and other wooden structures. The warm weather in California makes properties particularly vulnerable to termite infestations. Watch for signs of termites, have regular termite inspections, and treat them quickly to help save on costly repairs and preserve the structural integrity of your home.

How you treat a termite infestation and the cost of termite treatments will vary based on the termite species and colony size. Treatment options include the following:

termite bait on grass
Photo Credits: Bignai / Canva Pro / License
  • Bait treatments add a poison to termite food sources that are then carried back to termite colonies.
  • Chemical treatments are performed by applying a termiticide to the soil around an infestation and are usually done by a termite control professional.
termites tenting on a house
Photo Credits: Bill Oxford / Canva Pro / License
  • Fumigation tenting is when a termite tent is placed over a home, and toxic gas is pumped in so it can permeate anywhere the termites are hiding.
  • A heat treatment is a non-chemical, environmentally friendly way of treating termites inside your home. The wood in a structure is heated to at least 120 degrees for a minimum of 33 minutes, effectively killing the termites.

How to Prevent Termites in California

It is essential to take preventative steps to protect your home and keep termites from causing future damage. Here are some precautions you can take to prevent termites in your California home.

machinery positioned stump extractor tree removal
Tree stump removal
Photo Credit: eyecrave / Canva Pro / License
  • Remove wood and debris: Clear your property of any wooden debris and remove tree stumps. Also, keep firewood off the ground to deter termites from moving in.
  • Maintain good ventilation: Good airflow helps prevent excessive moisture, which can attract termites. Ensure your home has proper ventilation or install dehumidifiers, especially in attics and crawl spaces.
person fixing leakage of a gutter
Photo Credit: Alexander’s Images / Canva Pro / License
  • Fix water leaks: Fix any plumbing leaks or water problems right away. Moisture is a strong attractant for termites; fixing leaks can help lessen their appeal to your house.
  • Ensure proper drainage: Since termites are drawn to damp environments, preventing water from pooling in your yard and having good drainage systems can help. If you clean your gutters regularly to prevent water buildup, it can help protect your property.
  • Seal entry points: Cracks or gaps in your foundation and around windows are prime points of entry for termites. Watch for discarded wings around walls and windowsills as they indicate termites are active in your area. Be aware that there are insects that look like termites and also have wings. An inspection by a termite pro can determine what’s snacking on your house.
home inspector looking for termites in home
Termite inspection
Photo Credit: SLRadcliffe / Canva Pro / License
  • Regular inspections: Termites are a big problem for many Californians, so it’s recommended that you schedule a termite inspection at least once a year and any time you see signs of termite activity on your property.

FAQ: Termites in California

How Often Should You Tent For Termites In California?

You only need to tent for termites when a large colony has an active infestation.  By taking preventative measures and having your property inspected annually or when termites are active around your home, you should be able to avoid the need for termite tenting.

At What Altitude Do Termites Live in California?

Subterranean termites can be found at elevations up to 8,000 feet, according to the University of California. While termites are generally drawn to warmer areas, subterranean termites can thrive by living underground, even at high elevations.

How Much Does it Cost to Tent a House For Termites in California?

The cost of tenting a house for termites can range from $2,000 to $8,000, depending on the type of tenting and the size of your house.

  • Heat tenting typically costs $1 to $2.50 a square foot, with the average homeowner paying between $2,000 and $5,000 for treatment of a 2,000 square foot home.
  • Fumigation tenting can cost between $1 and $4 per square foot with an average range of $2,000 to $8,000 to treat a 2,000 square foot home.

When to Call a Pro

With the high population of termites and easy access to food sources in California, it is recommended that you have your home inspected by a termite control professional once a year.

If you notice signs like mud tubes, discarded wings, or hollow-sounding wood, it’s best to contact a local termite control company as soon as possible to prevent a full-blown infestation, termite treatments, and costly repairs.

Main Image Credit:
Background: Nodar Chernishev / Canva Pro / License
Termites: TrichopCMU / Canva Pro / License

Raven Wisdom

Raven Wisdom is a writer with a passion for pest control, gardening, sustainable living, and making a positive impact in the world. When she's not defending her garden from critters in the wilds of West Texas, Raven can be found writing, wrangling two kids in a neurodivergent family, and supporting her local animal rescues.