Troublesome termite tubes torment tenacious homeowner

#124 in a series of true experiences in real estate
December 1995, Hills Newspapers

There are termites in my living room! I am very upset.

A few months ago while vacuuming in corners, I found some grainy stuff along the seam where one wall meets the fireplace brick. “What could this be?” I wondered, then sucked it up.

A few weeks later, it was back. This seemed to indicate something live was going on, so I looked more closely, but nothing wiggled. This time I caulked the outside of the wall hoping to lock out whatever was coming in.

The third time I saw the crack filled up, I called Mitts Termite. Like going to the doctor, I was hoping for a reprieve, for the word to be “You’re fine,” but the inspector, John McDonald, takes one look and says, “You’ve got termites.”

He doesn’t appear at all alarmed, but John may always be calm and quiet. He was at the house before my husband and I bought it, and now he is looking around with interest, saying, “You did a lot of work here. It looks quite different.”

“Yes,” I tell him, “And all of these walls were fine when we stripped them to the studs 3 years ago. Everything was fine last summer when the floor was put in, too. How do you know they’re termites?”

“Termite shelter tubes,” he says, pointing to the mostly brown, with a little white, sandy-looking material. “The termites surround themselves with dirt they mix with body excretions so that ants, their natural enemy, can’t get to them.”

Anet is there too, and she jumps in. “How serious is this? How fast do they eat?”

“We need to figure out where the termites are coming from.” John says, and my mind starts running: “Of course, ‘primary site’– get ‘em where they originate.”

We all go down to the basement rooms under the termite spot. John looks carefully at the walls and floors, then goes into the adjacent crawl space in search of further evidence while we wait nervously.

“These are subterranean termites,” John tells us when he comes out. “They live underground and have come up in search of food. They haven’t caused too much damage yet that I can see but they may be under the floors.”

When my house was built in the 1940s, a concrete slab was poured, then a wooden floor built over it, and this was covered with large brown linoleum tiles popular at the time. There isn’t enough space to see what is going on under this floor, but John says that the termites have probably come up through cracks in the slab. If the concrete was visible, we’d know for sure where they’re coming from, but it isn’t.

“Are you planning to sell your house?” John asks. He still looks placid. I probably don’t.

“No,” I say. “I just want to preserve my house. Will I have to tear up the whole floor?”

“Not at this point,” says John. He shines his light on the wall behind the furnace and the hot water heater and says, “They always seem to choose spots like these to hide in, places hard to get to and uncover. They seem to like the warmth.”

He explains that he’s trying to find where they are, how they’re getting there, what their routes are. He’ll recommend spraying and drilling holes through the wood and concrete so chemicals can be applied to the dirt underneath. It seems that these termites have to return to the soil every day or so for their water supply. Some sort of twist on a Dracula thing.

“But this is like dealing with any kind of bugs, isn’t it?” I ask, a picture of aphids on my roses dancing in my head. “Even if we kill these guys, there are many more out there who could come here.”

“Not in the places where the soil is toxic,” John assures me. “Of course, they can come from somewhere else, but this is what we should try first. Then we’ll watch, wait to see if they evidence themselves elsewhere.”

I thanked him for the bad news. He went off to figure his bid and write his report.

It is amazing to me how much I don’t like having termites in my house. We deal with houses everyday, many of which have their own termites. How come I’m so emotional?

Part of it is the money, of course. If I had money to spend on the house, there are plenty of things on my wish list that I really want, things I could see and enjoy. I also don’t want to tear up surfaces that look okay to me the way they are.

The worst of it is that I have something new to add to my list of problems that are likely to be on-going. I’ve got enough of those already.

Last weekend I moved boxes, furniture, fish tanks from the affected area, arranging them in neat aisles in the garage. Then I tore out pieces of sheetrock and plaster. Using a flashlight and leaning close, I examined the debris. In some places I could see more termites; in others, everything looks clean. I still need to remove the plywood behind the furnace, see how bad it is there.

Meanwhile, these termites are moving right along. To my horror it has taken them only a week to rebuild their tubes in the living room wall. All I can do is vacuum them up.
John says termites live in colonies like ants do. He tells me about their queen and workers and whatever the equivalent of drones are. He sounds quite admiring, and I’m trying to be, too. But I keep thinking about thrip and whitefly and scale, not to mention slugs and snails, and my limited success in making them quit.

It’s a depressing thought. I really don’t want termites in my house.

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