What Are Termite Tubes? And What to Do About Them

termite mud tube on the wall

Termite tubes are tunnel-like structures built to allow termites to move outside the dark and damp spaces of the colony while protecting them from dryness and predators. Termite tunnels are usually indicative of infestation, which can cause serious damage to your home. Read on to learn more about termite tubes and what to do about them.

What are Termite Tubes?

wood damage by termites on rails
Photo Credit: Terry S. Price, Georgia Forestry Commission, Bugwood.org / Ipmimages

Termite tubes or mud tubes are small tunnels built from wood particles, soil, and other materials, such as termites’ own droppings and saliva (ew!). 

Termite mud tubes found along the surface of a wall or running up a home’s foundation are common signs that help identify a termite infestation. While mud tunnels don’t cause damage per se, they allow termites to reach and eat up your building’s structure, which, in turn, can cause serious damage to your home.

What Do Termite Tubes Look Like?

termite wood damage and mud tube
Photo Credit: zimmytws / Canva Pro / License

Generally, termite tracks look like brown stripes of soil that spread like veins alongside a home’s foundation or walls. Termite tunnels are flat, typically 1/4 to 1/2 inch wide (as thin as a pencil or as thick as a marker), and can reach up to 50 to 60 feet long.

There are four different types of termite tubes (exploratory tubes, working tubes, drop tubes, and swarm tubes). Drop tubes and swarm tubes have a distinct appearance: 

  • Drop tubes look like stalagmites that fall from a cave’s ceiling and have a light-brown color.
  • Swarm tubes extend only 4 to 8 inches above ground but can be very large, approximately 4 feet wide.

Why Termites Build Tubes

different types of termite tubes
Photo Credit: Juan Rodriguez

Unlike ants and other bugs that look like termites, some termite species have very soft cuticles (exoskeletons) and are easily dehydrated. This means termites cannot roam in the open since the dryness of the air is detrimental to them. 

While drywood and dampwood termites build their nests inside wood, subterranean termites construct their nests underground. Subterranean and conehead termites then construct these mud tubes so they can travel back and forth from the colony sheltered from predators and able to retain the humidity that is crucial to their survival.

Types of Termite Tubes

Subterranean termite tubes can serve different purposes. Here are the four types of termite mud tunnels:

working mud tube or utility mud tubes
Photo Credit: Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University, Bugwood.org / Ipmimages
  • Exploratory mud tubes are built to search for food above ground while keeping termites protected from ants (which are termite predators) and maintaining a connection with the underground nest. Exploratory tubes are the easiest to spot and are commonly abandoned by termites once they find their food source.
shelter tubes Photo originally from the Wood Products Insect Lab in Gulfport, Mississippi.
Photo Credit: USDA Forest Service – Wood Products Insect Lab , USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org / Ipmimages
  • Working mud tubes or utility mud tubes are more structured and permanent. Once termites find a food source, they will construct working mud tubes to travel from the colony directly to the dinner table. Exploratory tubes are highways that can cover long distances and have a stronger structure than exploratory tubes.
  • Drop mud tubes literally “drop” from the ceiling or from a joist. Drop tubes may have a portion of the tube suspended in the air or may function as a return route from the wood to the ground. They are usually lighter in color because their composition has more of the wood particles taken from the home’s wood structure.
  • Swarm mud tubes, on the other hand, are built seasonally (during mating season) as a safe exit for winged termites that leave the mother colony to form new colonies of their own.

How to Remove Termite Mud Tubes

You can remove mud tubes by scraping them off. But should you remove termite tubes in the first place? Well, if the infestation is still active, it is best for you not to do so. 

Knocking down termite tubes with an active infestation can cause termites to migrate to other areas of your home, further extending their damage. Is best that you only remove termite tunnels after extermination. So if you come across termite tracks in your home, contact a termite professional right away.

How to Tell if Termite Tubes Are Active

group of termites in the tunnel
Photo Credit: TommyIX / Canva Pro / License

To determine if termite tunnels are active, break open a small section and keep an eye out for activity. You might not see termites right away, but after a few days, check back and see if the tube is repaired. If this happens, you’re dealing with an active termite infestation in your home and the tubes are probably new. 

Old termite tubes are dry and easily crumble, and an etching is left on the surface when removed. But keep in mind that empty or abandoned termite tubes do not always mean the infestation is gone. Termites usually abandon exploratory tubes and keep working in utility tubes. 

So if you do this test and the termites don’t fix the broken tunnel, it does not necessarily mean your home is safe. The best move when you spot a termite track is to contact a pro. 

How to Clean Termite Mud Tubes

Damage caused by Formosan subterranean termites to a window sill of the Southern Regional Research Center Library. The colony nest was located two floors below in the soil, but workers entered the building through mud shelter tubes that they constructed through the hollow brick walls. The damage went unnoticed until moisture from foraging galleries by the termites caused the paint to blister. Much of the wood had been consumed by the termites before they were detected.
Photo Credit: Scott Bauer, USDA Agricultural Research Service, Bugwood.org / Ipmimages

After the eradication of termites, you can clean termite mud tubes by scraping them off the surfaces. The cleaning process is simple:

  • Start by scraping off the mud tubes. You can do it with a paint scraper or a screwdriver. Old tubes crumble easily, and in such cases, even a rag can do the job.
  • Clean the dirt and tunnel pieces with a vacuum cleaner.
  • Wipe off the remaining dirt from the walls with a piece of cloth wet with dish soap and warm water.

FAQ About Termite Tubes

Where Can You Find Termite Tubes?

Homeowners often notice mud tubes in their yards before seeing them inside their homes. Look for mud tubes in wood piles, outside patios, front porches, running up trees, and on outside walls of the house. You can also find mud tubes on floor joists and foundation walls, peeking out from cracks within concrete and bricks, and even in the ceiling (in cases of aerial infestations).

How Long Do Termite Tubes Take to Grow?

Regular exploratory termite tubes can take a few days, while the stronger working tubes can take a few weeks to grow.

How Long Do Termite Mud Tubes Last?

Termite tubes can last years when they are constructed in hidden or unvisited places such as a basement. Otherwise, they are very easily dismantled by other animals that can stumble on them when passing by. 

When to Call a Professional

Termite infestations are no joke. If you’ve found mud tubes in your home or yard, call a trusted pro who can take care of your infestation before the termites wreak havoc in your home. Luckily, Pest Gnome connects you to the best termite control pros in your area. Get in touch and get rid of termites today.

Main Image Credit: Wachiwit / Canva Pro / License

Teresa Joaquim

Teresa is a creative writer who holds a Master's degree in Psychology. Despite being a nature lover, she is terrified of cockroaches. As a native of the tropics, she is used to dealing with mosquitoes, although they still manage to bother her. Her favorite things are art, music, and playing with her two cats.

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