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Termites in New Jersey? How did they get here?!?!?

If you’re finding termite activity in your home, medicine the first question that comes to most people’s minds is “How?” How did these termites end up in your home? Or even in New Jersey, for that matter? In a world filled with Argentine Ants, German Cockroaches and Norway Rats, how did termites get to the Northeast, particularly New Jersey? Easy answer to that, they were always here! 

termite pressure throughout the US

Most commensal pests that we deal with, like their names might imply, are imported from Europe in much the same way our goods, livestock and produce have been transported from Europe.  Not so with Termites. Let’s take a quick look at this pervasive and usually beneficial insect in New Jersey. 

 The particular species of termite we have here in New jersey is the Eastern Subterranean Termite  (Reticulitermes flavipes). The “EST” is native to the eastern seaboard of North America and ranges from Florida to Maine and as far west as Texas.  Fortunately, our local ecosystem is home to only one species of termite so New Jersey residents don’t have different types of termites to deal with.  The Eastern Subterranean Termite lives in large colonies of thousands of individuals, sometimes colonies can number over a million!  Individual worker termites are small, white, almost grub like insects.  Termites have often been described as “worms” or “small grubs” in wood, as a matter of fact “termite” is a derivative of a Latin word meaning “wood worms”. 

Termite colonies have different roles for individuals to fulfill, workers are certainly the most numerous but the colony cannot live without its Queen.  The King and Queen Termite, also known as the “primary reproductives”, are the control center of the termite colony. Not only does the queen lay the eggs to spawn generations of workers and soldiers, she also gives out the command chemicals that termites use to communicate with each other.  Without this chemical control from the Queen, the colony would break down unless the colony was able to replace the queen. 

Different termite types in an Eastern Subterranean Termite colony

  Besides the workers and the primary reproductives, there are two other types of termites found in a colony, soldiers and secondary reproductives.  These two groups compose less than 10% of the total number of insects in the colony.  As you may have guessed, soldiers are required for the defense of the colony and have darkened heads and large strong jaws.  Secondary reproductives are sexually mature termites and most often have wings used in an annual reproductive flight, or swarm, that takes place in the early spring.  If king or queen termite dies, oftentimes a secondary reproductive will be “promoted” and become the new king or queen.  Also in larger colonies, sometimes there will be multiple females laying eggs to assist the queen.  

If you’d like to know a little bit more about the eastern Subterranean Termite or its relatives, click here.

What Does a Hard New Jersey Winter Mean to Our Insects?

 As a much beloved and often quoted character from the hit series “Game of Thrones” once said: “Brace Yourselves, recipe Winter is coming”.  Considering the winter we’ve had in New Jersey this year, troche he was certainly right.  As a matter of fact, it seems that winter might never leave us, as some residents of New Jersey awoke to a covering of snow and/or ice this morning, April 16.

Due to the harshness of the winter, we’ve been peppered with questions about the climate’s effect on pest populations.  The most common being “Since winter was so cold, does that mean there won’t be many insects this summer?” 

In a word? Nope.  Sorry gang, things aren’t that simple.  The weather and insect populations have a complex interrelationship that can vary widely depending on the type of insect in question. There’s also the question of the Predator/Prey relationship, if a predatory insect has a hard winter the insects they prey upon will have a higher population.  In a way, a cold winter may actually give rise to higher insect populations.   Let’s discuss in a bit more detail, shall we?  

First things first, let’s deal with our native insects like ants, termites, wasps and mosquitoes etc.  These types of insects, which compose our most bothersome outdoor (and sometimes indoor) pests.  Since these insects predate humans on this continent they have adapted to this environment and its climate.  As a matter of fact, these insects have survived much colder periods, namely The Year Without a Summer (1816) and the period of time known as The Little Ice Age (approx. 1500-1800).  Insects native to the North East region of the US have dealt with similar and colder temperatures for millions of years, a little glitch of cold won’t have much of an impact at all.  Conversely, these native hymenoptera (ants and wasps) tend to be the predatory insects I mentioned above.  Although a brutal winter may cull their population somewhat, as a species they will survive.

 Next, and maybe a bit more importantly, would be our resident, commensal insects.  The word “commensal” is a Latin derivative meaning “to share our table”.  So these pests that quite literally share our table would be things like German Roaches, Bed Bugs, House Mice and the Norway Rat.  As the names imply, these pests are not from North America but have been imported from Europe along with the first settlers.  Some rodent biologists hold fast to the idea that the first Norway Rats arrived on the Mayflower.   The nature of these pests is inextricably tied to the presence of humans and access to our resources. In other words, as long as humans can withstand the climate, then these pests will as well. The majority of commensal pests live indoors in close association with humans and as indoor pests they will have limited or no exposure to the severe weather we’ve endured. To paraphrase the great comedian George Carlin: “No matter what temperature it is in the room, it’s always “Room Temperature””.

The last grouping of insects would be unique in that they are imported pests, but not necessarily commensal pests.  Recent arrivals like the Asian Lady Beetle, Asian Longhorned Beetle and the Brown Marmorated Stinkbug have been arriving in North America since the (rather modern) advent of high speed travel and have arrived here within the last few decades.  Winter weather’s impact on these creatures is truly hard to discern.  For the most part they originate from a comparable climate or ecology but with enough differences to have a significant advantage over our native breeds or varieties.  There have already been anecdotal report of the winter killing off Stinkbug populations; one researcher reports losing 80% of his stored research specimens over the winter.   On the one hand, these new invaders may have been exposed to conditions they are not adapted to survive, on the other, they may have faced these, or harsher conditions, in their native ecosystem.  We would have to look at these insects on a case by case basis. 

Understanding the weather or climate’s effects on a group of organisms is a truly difficult task, almost impossible to be gauged at the time of occurrence.  Conversely, most population changes due to climate can be identified exclusively through the fossil record.  But that would be for insects in nature.  Unfortunately for us, the creepy crawlies that reside underfoot will stay right where they are, no matter the weather…

Termites in your New Jersey Home… How’d they get in???

In a previous blog, we discussed a bit of basic termite biology, namely what the colony is composed of and the particular species of termite that is found in New Jersey.  Since we’ve addressed the question of “Why New Jersey”, let me answer the next question: Why your home?

            Termites have evolved over millions of years into their present ecological niche and fill it very effectively.  In nature, termites consume and digest wood for nutrition and have adapted to our environment by attacking and breaking down dead trees and plants, allowing their component nutrients to be returned to the environment.   All well and good when it’s a log in the woods, or root structures from a dead plant, it’s a completely different story when the wood the termites are attacking is your house!!  Unfortunately our modern building practices, specifically using wood framing over a concrete or stone foundation, mimics a termite’s natural environment very effectively.  Think of how a tree root will grow over and around a rock, now compare that with structural lumber sitting on a foundation, very similar.

            Termites tend to attack our homes through areas that mimic their ideal feeding conditions in nature. We humans tend to unknowingly set the table for termites and are surprised when they come to dinner. 

wood to soil contact invites termite activity, especially when the area is moist

Simply put: a termite’s 3 favorite things are soil, wood and moisture.  When these three things are in the same place, termites are sure to appear.  As a matter of fact, these conducive conditions can be so inciting to termites that only 2 of the 3 elements might be necessary.  High moisture levels due to a leaky downspout can saturate the ground immediately next to the foundation of your home.  This high moisture environment is an ideal foraging and harborage are for termites.  Even if the wood is not immediately present, over time foraging termites will encounter a viable source of food.  

Wood to soil contact is another huge issue that we as homeowners need to contend with.  It could be something as simple as tomato stakes in a garden or stored lumber in a crawlspace.  Many times, homeowners may not be aware about stored lumber or leftovers from an old project.  When wood begins to decompose it emits vapors that are detected by a termite forager from almost a foot away through the soil.  So make sure your crawlspace is empty of scrap lumber and ventilated.  Any gardening you may be doing should be in a garden plot not immediately adjacent to your home, a minimum distance of 10 feet would be ideal.  Not only do termites eat wood in structures, but they will attack root systems from dead plants and bushes, always good to keep in mind when picking out your gardening site. 

some good mulching guidelines from Purdue University

One of the biggest problems we see with modern landscaping practices is over-mulching of yards and plants.  Mulch should be removed annually and mulch beds should be maintained with no more than 6 inches of depth, most experts recommend 3-4 inches.  Higher, deeper layers of mulch create a build-up of wood decay byproducts as well as heat and moisture.  Taken in combination, termites would be more than happy to infest mulch beds, especially when they are adjacent to our homes.  

If you have any concerns, take a good look around the house when you have an opportunity.  Use a flashlight so you can focus and have good visibility.  Look for any sources of moisture, like leaks or damaged pipes.  Also, investigate any staining or color changes you might see on wood that might be the first sign of a leak.  Make sure scrap lumber is stored properly and any outside building projects that require wood to soil contact utilize pressure treated lumber. 

Don’t be shy to get professional help.  Considering the amount of damage termites can do, you’re right to seek help.  A qualified professional will be able to locate any termite activity as well as any conducive conditions that might attract termites in the future.  An inspector will also be able to deduce if there has ever been a termite treatment done in the past.  There’s a good chance that if there was a treatment done in the past, you may expect to have termite activity in the future. 

Click here to download a copy of our free eBook, “The North Jersey Resident’s Guide to Termite Extermination”

Would you like to schedule a free estimate and have a Certified Wood Destroying Insect Inspector assess your home? click here!

Termite Colony Biology in Northern New Jersey

Termites are amazing insects that have evolved over time to occupy a rather unique niche in almost all environments on earth.  Termites have made two unique adaptations that plainly set them apart from the majority of other insects, one being the ability to digest wood (cellulose) for nutrition and their complex colony structure.  Let’s take a look at these amazing and adaptable insects.

Worker Termite

            The foremost adaptation that sets termites apart from most insects and in fact, most organisms on earth, is the ability to digest wood and wood particles called cellulose, for nutrition.  There are several thousand species of Termite around the world, from the tree nesting termites of Central America to the mound building termites of Australia and Africa and they all consume some form of cellulose for nutrition.  In effort to keep the discussion specific and not over-broad, we will discuss the Termites native to New Jersey, the Eastern Subterranean Termite.

            The Eastern Subterranean Termite is native to the northeast region of the US and are densely populated through New Jersey.  Their main adaptation has been to attack and consume underground wood and root systems from dead plants.  The wood alone is not enough to sustain them however.  In order to fully digest cellulose, termites utilize a type of microbe in their gut, called a protozoa.  These simple, single celled protozoa are passed from one termite to another after they hatch by exchanging food with one another (called trophallaxis) or by mutual grooming.  It’s important to note that termites are not “born” with these protozoa, but have to acquire them from their nest mates. 

Termite workers in natural wood

            Once Termite workers have begun to feed on a source of wood, they will consume as much as they can hold and return to the nest.  Upon reaching the nest, the returning workers will share the cellulose with other termites there, including the King, Queen and other reproductives, as well as any soldiers or nymphs that might be present. It is interesting to note that although the overwhelming majority of a termite’s diet is made up of wood, they are not exclusively wood feeders.  Termites have been known to feed on types of fungus growing within their nests as well as scavenging decaying animal carcasses, although infrequently.  Termites are notorious for consuming the dead bodies of their fallen nest mates, a process known as necrophagy. While humans might consider this a type of cannibalism, it is quite common in nature and especially in other colonies of insects like ants.  It would seem the highly efficient nature of colony insects require that nothing go to waste.   

            Colony insects are among the hardiest of insects on the planet and cover most of the available surface of the earth in one way or another.  Honeybees, wasps, all species of ants and termites are all examples of social insects but termites are unique in that they are not related to any other kind of social insects.  Bees, ants and wasps are all closely related being from the Insect order known as the Hymenoptera, a large and highly evolved group of insects.  Conversely, Termites are in the sub-order Isoptera, a sub grouping of the Order Blattodea and are closer relatives of roaches, a group of insects not known for social insect behavior. The Termite’s development into a complex social structure truly sets them apart from their roach-like cousins.

Termite Lifecycle

            The Termite Colony has several distinct groups within and are highly adaptable based on environmental conditions around the colony. Most important are the King and Queen, the primary reproductive termites that begin colony development. Once the King and Queen mate, they will burrow underground and begin construction of the larval chamber. Once the queen has laid her first brood of eggs, the first insects to hatch will develop into worker termites.

Termite colonies are mainly composed of worker termites, the backbone of the colony.  As the name implies, the worker termites are responsible for the construction and maintenance of the nest, foraging for food, grooming and feeding other types of termites.  In smaller colonies that may number only a few dozen or hundred termites, only workers will be found.  As colonies grow in size, other types of termites will be produced.  Once the colony numbers several hundred, soldier termites will begin to develop.

  Soldiers are much like workers with one notable exception, the heads and jaws of the soldiers are significantly enlarged and hardened for defense of the colony.  Soldier termites will respond to any invasion of the colony by other insects, like ants, or to any damage to the nest.  Soldier termites are known to “sound an alarm” to attract other soldiers to a point of attack or damage in the nest structure.   Unlike most other communication that occurs in the colony that occurs through chemicals called pheromones, the soldier termites attract other soldiers by banging their heads on the ground, using vibrations to carry the alarm message. 

Secondary Reproductives, note the longer abdomen and slightly darker head

As colony size increases into the thousands and beyond, supplementary reproductives will eventually develop.  These supplementary reproductives assist in reproduction within the colony as well as attempt to start a new colony.  Female supplementary reproductives have been known to assist the Queen in egg laying and quite often will lay more eggs than the queen.  If the queen were ever to die from illness or old age, a female supplementary reproductive would become the new Queen and will begin sending out control chemicals to the colony.   

When reproductive are generated by the colony en masse, they will develop wings and are known as “alates” or “swarmers”.  These winged termites will have an annual reproductive flight in the early spring, releasing hundreds of swarmers at a time.   Since termite colonies base their swarm on environmental factors, all the colonies within a geographical region will swarm around the same time, if not the same day.  Once a male and female swarmer meet during this flight, they will mate and begin the whole cycle anew. 

For more information on termites found in our area of New Jersey, click here.

For a more in depth look about termite colonies, click here for some good science.

If you think you may have termites and would like a free estimate and consultation, please click here.

North New Jersey Residents – Do you have winged ants or termites?

image courtesy of our friends at Northwest Pest Control in Atlanta GA. www.callnorthwest.com

Ants are highly evolved social insects, health not unlike wasps and hornets, that feed on a variety of food sources.  Pest ants are known to invade homes and kitchens in the spring and summer months, but in nature most ants are extremely beneficial.   Outdoors, ants will feed on plant pollen or fruits, some ants are predators of other insects and still other species of ants will herd and tend honeydew producing insects called aphids like cattle. 

Termites, on the other hand, are a fairly primitive insect that is closely related to cockroaches.  Termites are one of a handful of creatures on the earth that can digest cellulose (wood) as a food source.  Like ants, termites are a social insect, living in large colonies beneath the soil.  Like ants, Termites are a hugely beneficial insect in nature, but can come into contact with man when they infest buildings causing damage. 

subterranean termite worker

It is very important for homeowners to know the difference between these two insects.  Ants can be an occasional invader and a sometime pest, termites can cause significant damage to your home.  The biggest difference in appearance is between a simple ant worker and a termite worker.  Ant workers are dark brown to black, have elbowed antennae and a pinched waist.  Termites on the other hand, are small white insects with a thick waist, and short straight antennae (see photo).  You’ll easily find ant workers foraging on the surface but termite workers will usually be found inside wood or mulch they are actively feeding on. 

The workers look different in between these two types of insects but there is a life stage that look very similar and can be easily confused.  Both Ants and Termites will spawn winged reproductives, or “swarmers”, that tend to look very similar.  They will both be dark brown or black and both species will have two pairs of wings.  The best way to tell the difference will be the differences already mentioned in the thickness of the waist and the shape of the antennae.  (see above photo)   Termite swarmers also tend to lose their wings very easily so finding a pile of cast wings and only a few insects is entirely possible.

termite reproductive flight or “swarm” occurring at a joint in an exterior door frame.

Curious about termites? take a look at the wiki file for the Eastern Subterranean Termite here.

Here’s a wiki file about ants in general, wiki

If you think you have reason to suspect either Ant or Termite activity in our home, please fill out the form here to request a free estimate!