Termites, the mostly unseen source of dread for homeowners across Beaufort County, swarm in the spring.
They like warm days just like the rest of us on Hilton Head Island, exterminators say. You might even see swarming termites sunning themselves on the side of your house.
Recently a swarm of termites even found their way into a Lowcountry CVS, according to video from WCIV television station. Another video posted on social media by Hilton Head Island resident Jim Thomas shows a swarm around a pile of hurricane debris about 30 feet from his home in Sea Pines.
Here are five things to know about termites and what to do if you see them — or signs of them — around your home.
Two main types of termites in Beaufort County
Eastern subterranean termites, which have black bodies, and formosan subterranean termites, which are brownish orange, are the primary types of termites in Beaufort County, according to Cory Malphrus, division termite manager for Island Pest Control.
"Formosan termites are bigger in size and multiply faster, so they are able to do more damage," Malphrus said.
The problem is that, because both types live below ground, they can do a lot of damage before they are noticed.
Living underground also helps protect the termites when the winter is cold or the summer is hot, said Eric Benson, Extension entomologist and associate professor at Clemson University.
"They've been living on Hilton Head Island as long as Hilton Head Island has existed," Benson said. "They're pretty good at surviving whatever Mother Nature throws their way."
Termites are everywhere
Local exterminators said that, with the abundance of trees and moisture on Hilton Head, it's a veritable paradise for termites.
"Every home site has a colony of termites," said Al Day, owner of Advanced Termite and Pest Control.
That's not to say they aren't elsewhere in Beaufort County, too, he said.
"Termites are ubiquitous," Benson said. "They are everywhere. ... You are not going to get rid of them, but you can just keep them from eating your house."
Benson said he didn't have data that would allow him to say what part of Beaufort County had more termites. That would be anecdotal from exterminators who work in the area, he said.
"Hilton Head is pretty built up," he said. "You have a lot of houses and a lot of people, so you have a lot of termites."
Termites can live in tree stumps and tree roots, or in piles of storm debris, the exterminators said.
Benson said termites have a beneficial role to play in the environment: Without termites processing dead trees and limbs, "we'd be neck deep in dead wood."
How to tell if you have termites in your home
A termite queen can lay about 1,000 eggs or more each day, according to Island Pest Control's website.
And, when those thousands of termites get ready to forage for food, they'll use "any highway that's available to them," Malphrus said. "They can branch out any way."
Termites construct dirt tunnels from the ground to the wooden parts of the home.
Day said these "shelter tubes" are a "tell-tale sign" that a home has a termite problem.
"The first thing that I look for and tell people to look for, if your home is on a slab ... take a look at your slab," he said.
The shelter tubes will be the consistency of an ant mound but will be tall and thin from the ground to the wood over the slab.
Another sign that may indicate a termite problem: wood damage that follows the grain of the wood. Termites eat only the softest part of the growth ring, Day said.
Any areas around a home where there's excess moisture should be checked carefully.
Benson said if you see a few termites in your home this time of year, they might have flown in as part of a swarm, but if you see a dozen or several dozen, that's not a good sign.
"The only way to know for sure is to have an inspection," he said.
Termite treatment is not a DIY project
Termites are killed by chemicals injected into the ground around a home.
Day said it could take a couple hundred gallons of termiticide to eliminate the problem, and a do-it-yourselfer likely won't have the training to know how and where to apply it effectively.
Benson agreed that the average person doesn't have the equipment or knowledge to treat their own home, and he said homeowners will be able to take comfort in the warranty that exterminators offer.
"For protecting your own home, which is probably your largest investment, you are better off in the hands of a professional," he said.
Malphrus recommended that someone looking to hire a treatment company ask whether their technicians are licensed and state-certified.
"You'd like a reputable company. ... You need a lot of experience in this business," he said.
Here are some of the things Clemson's Home and Garden Information Center recommends when hiring someone to treat your home for termites:
- Ask about the exterminator's specialized training. Do they have expertise in controlling your specific pest problem?
- Find out about their warranty.
- Check to see if they have had regulatory actions taken against them due to violations by calling the Department of Pesticide Regulation at (864) 646-2150.
- Ask questions about the cost, and reach an understanding before any work is started.
Ways you can prevent termites in the first place
Homeowners should have an annual termite inspection, Malphrus recommended.
"Have qualified eyes on your property each year," he said.
Other things homeowners can do, the exterminators said:
- Keep landscaping and soil away from the sides of the house.
- Extend drip lines and gutters away from the home's foundation.
- Keep an eye on trees, stumps or tree roots that are close to the house.
- Eliminate moisture as much as possible.
Once the soil around a home is properly treated, that treatment should last for years, Day said.
"Termites can't come up through that soil," he said.