Bringing down your house

Termites cause billions of dollars
in damage to homes each year.
Wednesday, August 27, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:27 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

Insects the size of a grain of rice cause more than $1.5 billion in property damage each year to more than 600,000 homes in the United States. These tiny home-wreckers have a name that will likely send a chill up your spine if you own a home: termites.

Richard Houseman, an MU assistant professor of entomology and state urban entomology extension specialist, studies the biology of household insects. Ongoing termite research in his laboratory includes studies on the impact of mulches on termite activity, the effectiveness of soil insecticides and a study on termite behavior.

“Termite infestations in Missouri are a fairly common occurrence,” Houseman said. “Data show the older a home gets the more likely it is to get termites.”

Dave Fore, president of Atkins Pest Management in Columbia, said 40 percent to 50 percent of the company’s business is termite-related, often in older homes.

“I always tell people, if you live in a house long enough, you will have termites,” Fore said.

To protect your home from termite infestation, Houseman suggests having an annual inspection done by a reputable pest-management company. Regular inspections of common termite entry points can catch an infestation early and minimize damage. The older the home, the more important it is to have inspections, Fore said. If the home is newer, he suggests scheduling an inspection every couple of years.

If a pest-management company does find evidence of a termite infestation, Houseman advises remaining calm.

“Don’t panic,” he said. “Serious damage doesn’t occur over days or weeks; it takes months or years.”

Houseman suggests having three reputable companies assess your termite problem and give estimates for treatment. Different companies often give different estimates and offer a variety of treatment options, he said.

MU entomology master’s student Margaret Schwinghammer is working on termite research in Houseman’s lab that one day might improve the way termite infestations are treated. The St. Cloud, Minn., native is studying the behavior of termites when air currents disturb them.

“I’m really interested in behavior,” Schwinghammer said. “Termites are social insects, so they’re interacting with each other in a colony sense.”

Subterranean termites — the damage-causing culprits in Missouri — live in underground colonies that can contain more than 2 million members. They need direct soil-to-wood contact to infest a home. Without moisture from the soil they will quickly dry out. For this reason they sometimes build mud tubes to get from the soil to wood.

Schwinghammer’s research deals with the time it takes for a termite colony to regroup after a disturbance under a variety of conditions, including varying temperatures. This research may determine the most effective time of year to treat termite infestations.

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