Here in Tennessee, two important things happen in April. First, the Yankees scoff at that old Southern story about the dogwoods blooming at Eastertime. You know, the one about how the cross was made out of dogwood, and the little red flecks on the dogwood bracts symbolize the stigmata. And how God cursed the dogwood tree, condemning it to be forever small and gnarly.
A few years ago, I told this story to a Lutheran preacher from Wisconsin. He laughed out loud and said, “I promise you, that one’s not biblical. Plus, I’ll bet you my purple cape that there are no dogwood trees in the Holy Land.”
Second thing that happens every April: Termites swarm from their underground nests. This is how a whole lot of people find out that their house is infested with the evil, wood-eating bugs. Thousands of Tennesseans are getting this ugly news right about now, because termites are everywhere in our part of the world. There are about 15 termite colonies in an average acre of dirt, each with about a million bugs. That means my little quarter-acre lot is home to about 4 million head of termites. I figure if all my termites up and died tomorrow, my yard would sink an inch just from the loss of biomass.
I don’t worry too much about termites. They’re like little kids with jelly on their hands. As long as they stay in the yard, no problem. If they get in my house, I’ll try every trick I know to get rid of ’em.
The termites that are flying around right now are swarmers. Swarmers aren’t house-eaters, they’re colonists, refugees from overcrowded termite colonies. If you get swarmers in your house, you can bet the worker bugs have been eating your house for at least a year, or more likely two or three years.
You’ll know if you’ve been swarmed. A few thousand bugs all show up at once. Last year, I watched a huge cloud of termites erupt from my buddy Jim’s cedar fence post. I know, a lot of local folk will tell you termites don’t eat cedar. They’re wrong. I have found fat and happy termites not only in cedar, but in factory-poisoned, pressure-treated wood.
Just so you won’t get a termite swarm mixed up with some other plague: Termite swarmers are black, and 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. Termites have straight antennae, as opposed to ants’ crooked ones.
Swarmers have wings, which they leave all over the house, but mostly in the windowsills. That’s because the bugs live underground, and they’re genetically programmed to fly toward the light. When they get trapped in your house, they tire out and die pretty quickly. They can’t bite or sting you, so just suck ’em up with the vacuum cleaner, live ones and dead ones alike.
House-eating termites (workers, not swarmers) are white, almost translucent. They live in the ground and build mud tunnels from the ground to your house. You probably won’t see the house-eating termites 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 actively infested wood. Most regular homeowners don’t go under their houses, so termites stay hidden from all but the most determined professionals.
No matter what anybody tells you, there is no foolproof termite-detection system. Some exterminators have trained beagles to sniff out termites. With 15 million bugs to the acre, I could put my own nose to the ground and say I smelled termites, and odds are I’d be right every time.
High-tech exterminators have stethoscopes that, if they put them in just the right places, will let them hear termites chewing. I personally own a $300 termite fart-sniffing device. (It’s sold as a combustible gas detector, but termites fart methane, so the machine does double duty.) Truth be told, I don’t have a lot of confidence in either device.
My own personal approach is to have my house checked for termites once a year, and kill ’em if I find ’em. I don’t get the whole house treated. I think it’s a waste of time and good poison. I just spot-treat the areas where the bugs are.
Choose your termite-killing company carefully. Check their references. From everything I know, it’s best to stick with a locally owned outfit and avoid the big franchises.
Visit Walter’s Web site at http:// www.nash-scene.com/~housesense. Or e-mail him at Walter.Jowers@nashville.com.