About this time last year, one of my neighbors was sitting in her den reading the Sunday paper, minding her own business, when she noticed a little black bug crawling on the arm of her chair. She swatted at it, and it flew off behind her. She turned around to see where it went, and she just about fainted when she saw the whole back wall of her den literally crawling with black bugs. "There were tens of thousands of them," she said. "It was biblical! I spent the rest of the morning in my church clothes, standing on a ladder, and sucking bugs off the wall with my vacuum cleaner."
Well, don't you know, that was a termite swarm. In the next few days or weeks, a whole lot of folks will have a similar experience. One minute, everything's just fine, the next minute, there are bugs in your hair, bugs on the walls and floors, bugs on the dogs and cats. First thing you need to know: Relax. Termites don't bite or sting. They can't hurt you. Just suck 'em up with the vacuum, and don't be a baby about it.
Second thing you need to know: It could just be an ant swarm. But that's highly unlikely. Here's how to tell 'em apart: Termite swarmers are black. They look like ants, except that they're about the same size all the way from head to butt, without the pinched-in waists that ants have. Termite swarmers have straight antennae, as opposed to ants' crooked ones. If you get termite swarmers in your house, it's a safe bet that termite workers have been eating your house for a while. I know that sounds worrisome, and it is. But it's usually not a crisis. Often as not, replacing or reinforcing termite-damaged wood is a medium-sized job at worst, and it's nothing a decent carpenter can't handle.
Swarmers outside the house don't necessarily mean termites are eating your house. It's perfectly all right for termites to come flying out of a rotten stump 100 feet from your house. That's what termites do. But if the bugs are coming out of the ground immediately adjacent to your house, that could mean your house is under attack. Call the bug man.
If you're lucky, you won't be home when a swarm hits, and the bugs will let themselves out before you get home. You'll find some live and dead bugs here and there, but you'll mostly find wings on the windowsills. That's because wings fall off the swarmers as they fly out of their dark underground colonies and toward the light.
House-eating termites (workers, not swarmers) are white, and they don't have wings. They live in the ground and build mud tunnels up to your house. You probably won't see the workers unless you go into your crawl space or basement and break up their mud tunnels (about as big around as a pencil) or probe into a piece of infested wood.
An Orkin factoid: There are about 12 to 13 termite colonies, each with about a million bugs, on a typical American acre. Using those figures, I'd say that my yard alone has more termites than Tennessee has Tennesseans.
People ask me all the time: How can they be sure that there are no termites eating their house? Well, you can never be sure. You've got millions of termites in your yard, and they get up every morning with nothing to do but find wood and eat it. There's no foolproof termite-detection system, and there's no truly effective termite-killing system. My smarty-pants sources tell me that the bait systems are best but far from perfect.
In our home-inspection business, we go into a crawl space packing a 500,000-candlepower flashlight. We look for termite tubes, termite-chewed wood, and termite poop. But the flashlight beam is only about a foot across. We surely can't promise that there isn't some termite damage somewhere. The guys who come from the bug companies are specialists, but their termite inspection still involves one guy with one flashlight. Truth is nobody can inspect a house and know if it has termites or not.
Some exterminators have trained beagles to sniff out termites. I've been told that the beagles are good. But, shoot, with 12 million bugs to the acre, I could put my own nose to the ground and say I smelled termites, and nobody could prove me wrong.
Homeowners, listen to me: Just give up the notion that any company, person, or highly trained beagle can find all the termites. Any Tennessee house could have termites at any time. If you want protection against termite damage, hire a good pest-control company to treat the house, put out termite-killing bait traps, and inspect the house frequently. If you're lucky, you might find a company that'll sell you a no-loophole repair bond, which means if bugs eat your house, it'll pay to fix the damage.