Types of Termites: How They Differ

closeup of termites on wood

If you’ve seen signs of termites or think your home may have termites, you need to know which type of termite you are battling.

There are approximately 45 different species of termites found in the U.S., and about 2,500 species worldwide, each of which falls into one of the three main termite types.

Here are the three main types of termites:

Signs of termites include left-behind wings, swarming termites, fecal pellets, and small holes in the wood.

Knowing the appearance, behavior, and signs of damage of these three types of termites can help you catch the infestation early, saving on the cost of repairs to your home.

Oh, and we have included expert comments on all things termites later in this article.

1. Subterranean termites

Subterranean termites on ground
Native subterranean termites (Reticulitermes virginicus)
Photo Credit: Gerald J. Lenhard, Louisiana State University, Bugwood.org / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 3.0

Subterranean termites have existed for over 55 million years. The alates, or swarmers, are dark-brown to black, about ¼- to 1/2-inch long, and have two pairs of almost equal wings. The workers have no wings, are cream-colored and are about 1/4-inch or less in length.

According to Orkin pest control, subterranean termites exist in every state except Alaska. They prefer the warm southern states and are most common in Florida and Southern California.

Moisture needs

Subterranean termites need moist conditions to survive, which is why they live in the soil and not the wood they infest.

When termites forage above ground for their food source, they must ensure a connection to the soil that allows them to return to ground and replenish moisture. This connection is created by mud tubes that act as a passageway between the soil and woody food.

According to the Virginia Cooperative Extension, the worker termites will actively repair a damaged mud tube. Otherwise, termites located above ground will die of dehydration.

These moisture-loving termites occasionally may establish the colony above ground. Living above ground usually occurs when a wooden feature is experiencing moisture problems caused by leaking pipes or poor ventilation.

Behavior

Not only do subterranean termites create mud passageways that connect their food source to the soil, but these mud tubes are also protective. Called exploratory tubes, these connections (also made of fecal matter) protect the termites from predatory ants as they forage food.

These exploratory tubes are easy to see and can be a significant sign of a termite infestation. Once the termites locate a food source, they create larger tubes, called utility or working tubes, to lead termites from the tunnel galleries to the food source.

Damage

It takes several months or years of feeding for subterranean termites to cause significant damage. These termites will typically feed on the soft grain of the wood, following the grain. They leave behind the hard grain and a thin outer layer, making an infested wood structure look perfectly normal on the outside.

You can recognize subterranean termite damage by the fecal-soil mixture brought into the tunnels to ensure humidity. Without this soil mixture, the termites would dry out and die.

How they get inside

These termites invade the home from the soil around and beneath the vulnerable structure. Subterranean termites also may enter the home through cracks or crevices created by plumbing or electrical lines.

Species

Common subterranean termite species include:

  • Eastern subterranean termite
  • Arid-land subterranean termite
  • Western subterranean termite
  • Formosan subterranean termite

2. Drywood termites

Drywood termites closeup
Western drywood termite (Incisitermes minor)
Photo Credit: Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University, Bugwood.org / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

Drywood termites are most commonly found in the coastal southern states from North Carolina through the Gulf Coast, and along the coast areas of California.

There are usually a few thousand termites in a drywood colony, which develops slowly. While most colonies remain small, multiple colonies can infest the same wood structure.

The swarmers can be up to 12 mm long, are reddish-brown, and have two sets of wings. The front set has a pattern of heavy veins in the outer part of the wing. The swarmers shed their wings very quickly, so most dead swarmers do not have wings attached.

Dead subterranean termite swarmers will typically consist of bodies with and without attached wings.

According to the Arizona Cooperative Extension, there is no true worker caste in most drywood termite colonies, but rather immatures that assume the workers’ role. Drywood termite soldiers and immatures look similar to subterranean termite soldiers and workers, but larger.

Behavior

Unlike subterranean termites that produce liquid feces, drywood termites produce dry fecal pellets. The termites dispose of the pellets through “kick holes” or “kick-out” holes to keep any pellet accumulation outside the gallery.

Pellets forming outside of the kick hole is typically the first sign of a drywood termite infestation.

Moisture needs

Drywood termites do not need to maintain contact with the soil for moisture. They extract enough water from feeding on wood and produce water during the digestive process. According to the Arizona Cooperative Extension, these termites prefer wood with 10% moisture content but require as little as 2.5% to 3% moisture.

Signs of damage

signs of termite damage
Termite fecal pellets
Photo Credit: Sanjay Acharya / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Unlike subterranean termites, drywood termites eat both across and with the grain of the wood. They make clean, smooth gallery tunnels with few fecal pellets and no soil. Infested wood will contain the round kick holes through which the termites eliminate their fecal pellets.

Keep in mind these fecal pellets may accumulate outside the infested area. The pellets are hard, elongated, and less than 1-mm long. They have rounded ends and have six flat sides (though this can be difficult to see without aid). The pellets are typically tan in color, though occasionally black.

How they get inside

Drywood termites enter structures through attic or foundation vents, wood shingles, cracks, windows, or door frames. Drywood termites can penetrate flat wood surfaces but prefer to enter the structure through small openings.

Species

Common drywood termite species include:

  • Western drywood termite
  • Southeastern drywood termite
  • Desert drywood termite

3. Dampwood termites

closeup of Dampwood termites
Pacific dampwood termite (Zootermopsis angusticollis)
Photo Credit: Judy Gallagher / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Dampwood termites are the largest termites in North America yet their colony sizes are usually the smallest. King and queen dampwood termites measure between 1/2- to 5/8-inches long. Soldiers can grow up to 3/4-inches long.

Dampwood termites are typically brown, but can range from dark to light and can also be reddish. Nymphs are cream-colored and can grow up to 5/8-inch long.

These termites are most commonly found in the western states, including California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.

Behavior

Finding a dampwood termite infestation is challenging. These termites keep themselves well hidden and typically cause significant damage by the time they’re discovered. They don’t build mud tunnels like subterranean termites, and they don’t create visible holes in the wood to eliminate their fecal matter like drywood termites.

To stay relatively unseen, dampwood termites need to ensure they have enough moisture. To that end, these crafty termites plug any holes with their fecal matter to keep from drying out.

Moisture needs

While subterranean termites depend on soil to replenish moisture, dampwood termites depend on moist wood. Soil is unnecessary for this termite to survive, though contact between soil and a wooden structure often leads to infestation.

Wood that is water-damaged or rests directly on the ground is attractive to dampwood termites, particularly stumps, lumber, logs, or tree branches. Roof and pipe leaks may lead to water-damaged wood in your home, which attracts these pests.

Signs of damage

Tunnel galleries often contain fecal pellets, though no soil. The pellets can appear stuck to the sides of the galleries, forming clumps. Yet if conditions are dry, the pellets will collect at the bottom of the galleries.

When swarmers of dampwood termites are visible, their presence is typically a good indication of an infestation.

How they get inside

Contact between wood and soil will often lead to a dampwood termite infestation. Wood that has been damaged by leaky pipes or poor ventilation also attract these termites.

Keeping rain-soaked firewood near the home? These termites will infest that too. Dampwood termites live in the wood they feast upon and can eventually invade sound (even dry) wood.

Forgot to clean the gutters like your spouse asked you to do? Gutters filled with debris can cause excessive moisture to accumulate in wall cavities, attracting these hungry termites.

Species

Common dampwood termite species include:

  • Florida dampwood termite
  • Desert dampwood termite
  • Nevada dampwood termite
  • Pacific dampwood termite

Ask The Experts

Types of Termites: How They Differ

  • What is your No. 1 tip to homeowners on how to prevent termite infestations?
  • From your experience, what is typically the first sign of termites infesting the home?
  • What has been the most damaging effect you’ve ever seen from a termite infestation?
  • What is the biggest mistake homeowners make when trying to eradicate termites without the help of a professional?
Nan-Yao Su
Distinguished Professor of Entomology
Dawn H. Gouge Ph.D.
Medical Entomology Professor & Public Health IPM Specialist
Changlu Wang, Ph.D.
Extension Specialist in Entomology
William H. Kern, Jr. Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Wizzie Brown, BCE
Senior Program Specialist- IPM
Nan-Yao Su
Distinguished Professor of Entomology
University of Florida, Ft. Lauderdale Research & Education Center

What is your No. 1 tip to homeowners on how to prevent termite infestations? 

Avoid wood-to-ground contact. Fix the moisture problem.

From your experience, what is typically the first sign of termites infesting the home?

Swarmers.

What has been the most damaging effect you’ve ever seen from a termite infestation? 

Roof caving in.

What is the biggest mistake homeowners make when trying to eradicate termites without the help of a professional? 

As the above. After chasing away termites with sprays, they tend to believe the problem is solved. They are wrong.

Dawn H. Gouge Ph.D.
Medical Entomology Professor & Public Health IPM Specialist
University of Arizona – MAC Experiment Station

What is your No. 1 tip to homeowners on how to prevent termite infestations?
Stay vigilant:

  • Fix plumbing leaks in or close to buildings.
  • Maintain a gradient around the home to promote water draining away from the home.
  • Avoid planting plants close to buildings. 

From your experience, what is typically the first sign of termites infesting the home?

Here in Arizona, it would be mud tubes up the side of buildings — inside or outside — on the foundation stem wall. Or, mud tubes hanging from the ceiling inside the home.

What has been the most damaging effect you’ve ever seen from a termite infestation?
Homeowner buyer/seller closing fiascos that resulted in more than two sets of people with very complicated housing renegotiations and delays.

What is the biggest mistake homeowners make when trying to eradicate termites without the help of a professional?
Off-label applications and elevated exposure risks.

Changlu Wang, Ph.D.
Extension Specialist in Entomology
Rutgers University, Department of Entomology

What is your No. 1 tip to homeowners on how to prevent termite infestations?

Avoid placing thick mulch or wood around the foundation.

From your experience, what is typically the first sign of termites infesting the home?

Mud tubes or swarming alates.

What has been the most damaging effect you’ve ever seen from a termite infestation?

A new home with multiple horizontal beams damaged in the basement.

What is the biggest mistake homeowners make when trying to eradicate termites without the help of a professional?

Some homeowners use insecticide sprays to kill the swarming alates in homes without realizing much more termites are in the structure.

When large numbers of swarmers are found in a home, there must be a mature termite colony damaging the house. Insect spray is not an effective method to get rid of them.

William H. Kern, Jr. Ph.D.
Associate Professor
University of Florida, Entomology & Nematology Department, Ft. Lauderdale Research and Education Center

What is your No. 1 tip to homeowners on how to prevent termite infestations?

  • Be sure that a good preventive treatment is in place for subterranean termites — either a liquid termiticide barrier or baits that destroy the colony.
  • Have your home inspected annually to discover infestations early and reduce potential damage.
  • Inspect for moisture issues such as downspouts directed along the foundation, leaking hose bibbs, roof leaks, leaking pipes, and improper grading of the home site causing water to drain toward the foundation.
  • For drywood termites, make sure all attic vents (soffit, gable, ridge vents) are well screened.
  • Use yellow bug lights to reduce the termite alates attracted to your house’s exterior.

From your experience, what is typically the first sign of termites infesting the home?

Unfortunately, it is usually the presence of swarms inside.

Signs of subterranean termites also include:

  • Mud tubes.
  • Soft spots in wood.
  • Moist spots in walls.
  • Damaged wood with the spring wood bands hollowed out and smeared with fecal “mud.”

Swarms of drywood termites mean that the colony has been present and eating wood for five to six years.

Signs of drywood termites include:

  • Fecal pellets piling underneath kick out holes in the wood.
  • Wood hollowed out to just below the paint finish.

Damage is usually detected during annual inspections by probing the wood with a screwdriver or awl.

What has been the most damaging effect you’ve ever seen from a termite infestation?

Subterranean termite damage is always more severe because the colony invades a structure as a mature colony with between 100,000 and 6 million workers.

We have seen subterranean termite colonies eat all the stubs within a wall in only six months causing walls to sag or collapse. Drywood termites can cause structural failures of rafters and joists, but it usually requires decades without treatment. Drywood termites tend to damage furniture, cabinetry, baseboards, moldings, exterior doors, and soffit boards in shorter periods — around 5–8 years.

What is the biggest mistake homeowners make when trying to eradicate termites without the help of a professional?

Their biggest mistake is trying to do it themselves.

  • For subterranean termites, large volumes of liquid termiticide and specialized equipment are needed. Or, baits can be used — but their availability is limited for homeowners.
  • Incomplete treatments are as bad as no treatments. In much of the world, drywood termite-infested wood is removed and replaced.
  • Fumigants like sulfuryl fluoride are not available to homeowners and are only available through pest control professionals certified in structural fumigation.
  • Spot treatments for drywood termites are only effective when there is good access to all the infested wood. Once a drywood colony has swarmed, then fumigation is the only method to eliminate all of the new incipient colonies now distributed in the structure.
Wizzie Brown, BCE
Senior Program Specialist- IPM
Texas A&M University, Texas A&M AgriLife, Entomology

What is your No. 1 tip to homeowners on how to prevent termite infestations?

Keep standing water away from the home and reduce wood-to-soil contact near the foundation.

From your experience, what is typically the first sign of termites infesting the home?

It depends — it could be swarmers or wings of swarmers left behind on a windowsill, or it could be shelter tubes going up the side of a foundation.

What has been the most damaging effect you’ve ever seen from a termite infestation?

Consumption of wood.

When to call a pest control professional

Call a pest control provider near you if you suspect your home may have a termite infestation. Termite damage can break the bank if ignored for too long. It’s best not to wait to deal with an infestation.

Even if you don’t suspect an infestation, it’s smart to schedule a routine termite inspection with your pest control company.

Why? Termites know how to remain hidden, and often you won’t know your house has a termite problem until it’s too late.

Main Photo Credit: Needpix.com

Jane Purnell

Having lived in the rural countryside and bustling city, Jane Purnell is familiar with a wide variety of critters sneaking into the home, including mice, spiders, cockroaches, snakes, and stink bugs. She practices a proactive approach (Integrated Pest Management) to keep pests out of her home.

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