About Termites

Termites or “white ants” are social insects that work and live together in groups called colonies. Worker termites are wingless, blind and do not reproduce. Soldier termites defend the colony against predators such as ants and do not reproduce.

There are about 20 species of termites in Australia that are of economic importance in building.  Most of the species of termites that damage timber in Australia are Subterranean Termites.  The most destructive species are Mastotermes darwiniensis, Coptotermes species and Schedorhinotermes species.  Many tree-nesting and mound building termites found in urban areas do not infest sound seasoned timbers.  Destruction of these nests does not protect the buildings from attack from other colonies and species.

Subterranean termites usually nest in the ground from which they build mud tubes over walls or piers (or any object in their way) to attack a structure from below.  Termites inside a building usually need to maintain contact with the soil for moisture and with the main nest.  IF there is a permanent source of moisture available for the termites within the building (e.g. leaking plumbing, leaking hot water service outlet or leaking sprinklers too close to the building), it may not be necessary for the termites to have contact with the nest and soil.  It is then possible that a nest can be established inside the building.  Bathrooms and laundries are common places for termite infestations.

If infested firewood or other material is brought into the house, subterranean termites can not form a nest as the connection with the main nest in broken.  Winged (flying) termites entering a building does not generally result in nest establishment because moist and decayed timber is not usually available.

Signs of termite entry you should look out for:

Termite entry can occur at the slab edge, through cracks, joints and imperfections in the concrete or around service pipes.

Places to look for termite mud tubes (tubes built from dirt and other materials) or termite damage include piers or stumps, subfloor area, foundations, skirting boards, architraves, cornices, moulding and roof timbers.

Other things to watch out for are soft floor boards, bulging staining or rippling of painted timbers.  Termite damaged wood has a hollowed out sound when tapped, which will often indicate termite damage.  Bits of dried mud and frass may fall from joints in walls when tapped, which can also indicate termite damage.

Some species of termites make a “clicking” noise which is usually heard at night time.

Precautions you can take to help prevent termite infestations:

  • Have regular inspections of the building carried out to Australian Standards by licensed and experienced consultants and inspectors.
  • Materials such as firewood should not be stored against the building for long periods.
  • Built-up gardens and shrubs should not be planted too close to the perimeter of the building, obstructing the weep holes or creating insufficient slab edge exposure.
  • Fix any moisture problems such as leaking pipes, shower recesses, leaking hot water service outlets, leaking sprinklers too close to the building, inadequate drainage or drains not connected to the stormwater.
  • Ensure there is adequate subfloor ventilation.
  • Remove untreated timbers that are in close proximity to the building.
  • Construct retaining walls, fences etc with termite resistant materials.
  • Have a termite management plan put in place, with installation of a chemical perimeter barrier for added protection.

Types of Termites and their roles in termite attack:

 
 

Schedorhinotermes

The average length of this species of termite is 3-7mm long.

The major soldiers have bulbous heads.  The minor soldiers are usually about two-thirds of the length of the major soldiers.  They have narrower heads and more slender mandibles and their labrums extend and almost to the tip of the mandibles.  Identification of the species is a specialist task although some species have limited distribution which aids in identification in some areas of Australia.

This species of termite nest in root crown and lower trunk of living and dead trees.  Subterranean nests in buried timber in ground or under houses.

Young colonies have smaller soldiers.  Once the nest is well established, major soldiers appear. 

The various species of Schedorhinotermes occur throughout Australia.  They have particular areas of occurrence as follows:

  • Schedorhinotermes intermedius occurs from southern Queensland to Nowra in New South Wales and is manly coastal.
  • Schedorhinotermes actuosus occurs from northern Australia from Geraldton in Western Australia, through Alice Springs to Cairns to Queensland.
  • Schedorhinotermes breinli occurs in the Northern Territory southwards to Newcastle Waters and in coastal Queensland north or Gladstone.
  • Schedorhinotermes derosus occurs in northern Western Australia.
  • Schedorhinotermes seclusus occurs in coastal eastern Australia from Cairns in Queensland to Taree on the central coast of New South Wales.

The various species of Schedorhinotermes may be serious pests of timber in service.  Their attack of wood in buildings at times approaches the intensity of Coptotermes.  They reach their food in the same way by means of subterranean tunnels and shelter tubes.

 

Coptotermes

This species is a non-mound building over most of its range however it builds mounds in Queensland and other tropical areas of Australia.  It mostly nests in trees, stumps, poles or filled-in verandahs where timber has been buried.  Favoured trees for nesting are English oaks, various eucalypts and peppercorns.  Mostly the colony is found in the root crown or the lower park of the trunk.

This species is present over the entire Australian mainland, except in a few high rainfall areas and along some of the easterna coastline from Jervis Bay in New South Wales to Cape Otway in Victoria.

This is the most destructive termite species in Australia.  It attacks all timber structures and damages forest and ornamental trees as well as fruit trees.  Although Mastotermes darwiniensis is the most destructive where both occur together, Mastotermes darwiniensis is confined to the top part of Australia, mostly in the tropical areas.

Soil contact is desirable for this species but not essential provided that it has an assured moisture supply and security in its habitat.  Colonies have been found on the top of multistory buildings where there is a constant water supply but no ground contact.  Large colonies have also been found inside wooden barges that do not have contact with the ground, moisture being supplied through the timber from the fresh or salt water.  This species has caused fire by shorting out electrical wiring and in one suburb of Sydney it so severely damaged the large subterranean cable carrying electric power to an hospital that supply failure blacked out a large and sensitive part of the hospital.

 

Microcerotermes

This species is 3.15-7.75mm long.  They have long rectangular heads and long fine mandibles that are finely serrated when viewed with a microscope.

There are several species in this genus which occurs throughout Australia and in most instalces the identification of the species is a specialist task.

Some species like Microcerotermes turneri and Microcerotermes serratus may build small mounds nest underground make arboreal nests and nest on top of posts.  The outside layer of the nests is rather thin and easily penetrated or broken.  The other species are entirely subterranean in nesting habits.

Each of the several species has its own particular area of occurrence with some overlap.  The genus is represented by at least one species all over the Australian mainland except in the southeastern corner.

Microcerotermes turneri occurs along the eastern coast of Australia from Townsville in northern Queensland to Prot Macquarie on mid coast New South Wales.

Microcerotermes serratus occurs in Western Australia the Northern Territory, Queensland some western parts of New South Wales and into south Australia.

Microcerotermes distinctus occurs manly in inland areas of New South Wales and Victoria.

The several species of Microcerotermes damage wood in service but it is mostly weathered and decaying and in contact with the ground such as posts, poles and fences.  Their nesting habits (mounds, arboreal nests) often betray their presence and facilitate their control.