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All About Termites and Infestations

"An Arboreal Banquet"

Ever had that sinking feeling, that terrible feeling when you are being assertive, you stamp your foot and it keeps on going as the floor collapses beneath you?

A certain housing estate on the bukit has a plethora of skylights and is getting more everyday. It isn't that the residents like sunbathing or can't afford lighting, it is just that holes keep falling out of their roofs as the wooden structures beneath disintegrate.

These are unsuspecting victims of billions of little teeth that nibble away, day and night, teeth that like anything ligneous and appreciate a nice mahogany table but only as a gastronomic delight.

Other than earthquakes probably the most destructive threat your building will have to endure will be termites. There is nothing any self respecting termite likes better than to munch on a maple, lunch on a larch or pig out on a pine.

Termites are voracious little beasties. They might be rather small but they are hungrier than a sumo wrestler from Darfur, did you know that a large colony can remove as much as 7 kilograms of beautifully varnished arboreal corpses from your house in a week!

They've been around for a while now (some say 250 million years) and there are estimated to be around 4,000 species of termites (that's a lot) of which around 10% can cause damage to buildings, crops and plantation forests.

It might make you pretty fed up when they knaw your knotholes but in fact termites are very important for the environment by recycling dead plant material.

Otherwise known as white ants; but they're not, - ants that is, termites are from the Isoptera order of social insects while ants are from the hymenoptera; termites are believed to be more related to wood eating cockroaches (and they call them "social" insects?)

Within the order Isoptera there are several "families" grouped not by their surnames like the Trumps, Murdochs and other devouring species but according to their eating habits, common families are subterranean, soil feeding, dry wood, damp wood and grass eating. From our point of view there are two important families, the first are Kalotermatidae which are drywood, dampwood and powderpost termites which build their colonies only in wood. The second are the Rhinotermatidae which are subterranean termites and build their colonies underground. These are the two types of termites that give us the ssshhhingles by chewing on our carpentry and it is important to distinguish between them because different tactics are needed to protect our property from their ravenous habits.

There are, of course, other families of termites including mound building termites seen in Africa and Australia that are only of interest to quizz goers here in Bali. It is said that the soil from termite mounds repel other types of insects.

Know Your Enemy - Termites

It is a good idea to understand what we are dealing with.

Termites, like ants, bees and wasps, live in colonies and tend to have several castes: soldiers which guard the colony; workers which eat your wood, feed the colony and nurse the young; nymphs semi mature individuals which can develop into other castes and the reproductive or "alate" caste of males and females. A colony can number from hundreds to millions of individuals. Soldiers and workers can live for up to 5 years while reproductives can live for decades.

Every year in Bali after the first good rain of the wet season the night air will be filled with flying insects with long wings. These may be flying ants or, more likely, the alate or reproductive caste of termites which grow wings and swarm to mate. Once mated alate termites fall to the ground and break off their wings and the female finds a place to start a colony followed by the male. The reproductive pair become the King and Queen and carry on mating for life unlike ants which mate only once then the male dies. A termite colony may have several mating pairs and a queen may lay as many as 2,000 eggs a day.

Subterranean termites nest underground all their lives and do not like light hence their white colour. They tunnel underground and through cracks and gaps in the structure of your buildings and are able to penetrate cracks as small as 0.4 of a millimetre. If they have to cross areas exposed to daylight they build tunnels out of mud and other materials such as plaster, rubber, soft plastic and silicone sealants. Subterranean termites need moisture, which they can absorb through their skin, and so have to return to the earth continually.

Drywood termites live inside the wooden structure, they do not need as much moisture as subterranean varieties so they don't need to reach the ground.

Termites hate light and because of this they are rarely seen, they can severely damage a building eating out the wood from the inside without detection.

Termites eat the cellulose they find in plant fibre wood, paper cardboard, leaf litter and other dead plant material including paper, cloth and carpets. Cellulose is a high energy source but is very difficult to digest and termites have a particular protozoa and bacteria in their digestive tracts. Only workers eat wood, they forage for food and take it back to the nest to feed the rest of the colony.

Termites have their favourite foods of course and won't eat wood with strong oils or resins in them such as teak and cedar. Other woods like the ever popular bingkirai wood very commonly used in Bali these days are the termite equivalent of a smoked salmon with canopes.

Do I Have Termites?

So how do you know if you have termites? Well they are easy to miss and sadly for many people the first sign of trouble is when something falls apart. Take the time to look carefully and familiarise yourself with typical termite damage. Termites are found in most parts of Bali but seem to be particularly common on the Bukit.

Symptoms of Termite Infestation

There are a number of symptoms that can alert you to the presence of termites:

  • Look around your property particularly before it has been swept or cleaned. Look for small piles of fine particles on the floor or on furniture that have dropped from wood above.
  • Look for mud tunnels about 8mm diameter, you may find them on external or internal surfaces where termites are moving from one safe place to another.
  • Look for holes or damage to wood. Tapping wood particularly skirting boards or around door and window frames can reveal places where the wood is thinner because it has been eaten out. You may even find the wood has just a thin layer left with holes underneath.
  • Some say that in the quiet of the night you can hear termites as they tuck into your timber.

As with other pests such as rats or cockroaches, by the time you see the symptoms the infestation is usually a lot worse than what you see. It is best to get experts in to check your property and provide advice.

Termites in Roof structures

Take note that the most serious damage from termites may well be in your roof. These days roof structures are being built from steel however the vast majority of roofs still have wooden structures. Doors and windows can be replaced but roofs are a major structural component of your house and termite damage can be very expensive.

You should also note that some pest control companies will give you a quotation to treat your house but will NOT include the roof structure! Make sure you check that your roof structure is included in the treatment.

Termite Inspections

It is wise to get an inspection done to find out if you have termites, what areas are affected and the type of termite. While in other countries pest control companies offer comprehensive inspection services unfortunately in Bali it is very difficult to find companies that are able to carry out inspections and provide meaningful reports.

Next issue we'll look at the different ways of protecting yourself against the arboreal appetites of ambitious arthropods. We'll talk about war games, defence strategies and how to avoid poisoning the cat, the dog and that nice old Ibu in the Warung next door.

Copyright © Phil Wilson 2009
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