The Complete Guide to Termites in Arizona

By Kevin Etheridge

Termites are a common pest in Arizona. That is why I put together this guide to better help you understand termites and answer some commonly asked questions about this unwanted insect. Let’s get started.

Types of termites in Arizona

There are many, many species of termites world-wide. In our Sonoran Desert an to be specific in our metro areas there are basically two types of termites. Commonly know as the Desert Subterranean Termite and to a much lesser degree The Drywood Termite.

Subterranean Termites:

This species which is very active in Arizona lives in the soil and randomly forges for food. Desert Subterranean Termites will randomly forge their way into your building seeking any material containing cellulose (their food). These termites can enter through a crack no greater than the width of a dime on edge. Tell tail signs include “mud tunnels or mud tubing”. Subterranean termites live in the soil and under most conditions need contact with the soil for moisture. Treatment methods include soil treatment, baiting and foaming wall voids at points of activity. Preventative methods include installing a physical barrier and / or a liquid barrier during the construction of the structure.

Drywood Termites:

This species of termite burrows into the wood after a nuptial flight. Pairing swarmer’s create or start a colony inside the wood usually entering in small gaps such as 2x 4’s nailed together. Drywoods will remove each other’s wings and burrow into the wood leaving very fine sawdust called frass. Drywood colonies are slow to establish, once established they will start to kick pellets, these pellets are their waste and resemble the color of the wood they are ingesting. Fumigation is recommended for heavy infestations or inaccessible infestations. Localized treatment is very effective as long as you can access the galleries in which the termites are working and living. Drywood termites do not need any contact with the soil and can survive within the wood with at least a 10% moisture content.

What do termites look like?

Termites come in various sizes, they all have some features in common. Their body includes a head, thorax and abdomen, unlike ant who have three distinctive body parts, termites have a distinctive head and the thorax and abdomen seem to be without distinction. Desert subterranean termites are small insects and worker termites are white to creamy white in color. Winged reproductive termite know as swarmer’s are usually black in color, they have wings that are much longer than their body, they are poor flyers and their wings readily come off.

This is an example of wings on a concrete sidewalk found after a swarm.

Another sign of subterranean termites is that of their shelter tubs. Subterranean termites use these tubs to travel in. They protect them from predators and from the environment.

This is an example of a shelter tub coming in from a bath tub box.

Drywood termites are creamy white with red heads. Because they do not need contact with the soil they do not leave shelter tubs as evidence. They do leave pellets, small droppings, as their galley fills with this waste material they simply bore a hold and kick them out. Hence the term “I found the kick out hole” this is a term used in locating the galleries in wood to render treatment.

Images of subterranean termite swarmer / workers and soldiers. Note soldiers have larger mandibles for defense of the colony.

Are termites a big problem in Arizona?

Termites especially subterranean termites are prevalent in Arizona. The question are they a “big” problem rouses the senses and instills fear. Yes, desert subterranean termites are present, an acre of land in Arizona can contain many separate colonies, each independent of one another.

Prevention is the best method of keeping termite problems to a minimum. However, because we are dealing with nature and millions of years of experience (on the part of the termites) there is absolutely no silver bullet. My conclusion is this, yes termites are common, they are quick to forge and slow to damage. Desert subterranean Termites are a manageable problem.

Map of the distribution of the Desert Subterranean Termite.

Where to termites live?

Desert subterranean termites live in the soil, forage for food and return to the soil without an alternate water source. Drywood termites live in the wood, they do not require any contact with the soil.

What attracts termites?

There are many theories, one that makes sense to me is as follows: Termites (subterranean) are random foragers. There is a belief that they can be attracted by the “shadow effect” meaning cooler soil. The cooler soil may alert of a fallen tree above, hence food. Unfortunately, our buildings provide the same shadow effect. Other common attractants, water or a plumbing leak that has gone undiscovered, wood stacked close to a structure and leaves left to decompose.

What do termites eat?

Termites are a part of nature’s recycling process and an important part. They return cellulose material back to the earth. As you may know wood is a cellulose material, but don’t stop there, many components of our homes and buildings are made up of cellulose or derived from cellulose. Termite digest these materials and extract the necessary nutrients they need then they simply poop the left-over out, this is the same material they build their shelter tubs with.

How do you tell if you have termites?

Tell tail signs are mud tubes or tunnels for subterranean termites, damaged wood such as at the base board or door jam. You may witness tunneling from the interior ceiling, these are all signs of subterranean termites. Drywood termites, look for droppings and / or wood damage.

Wings may be found, however in swarming season, wings on the exterior of a structure is not a sure sign that the structure is infested.

Can you live in a house that has termites?

Absolutely – there is to my knowledge there is no reason humans cannot live in a structure with a termite occurrence. (unless the termites have gone for years unchecked, causing severe damage to the structure, making it structurally dangerous) The most important part of this answer, don’t let the infestation go unchecked or untreated.

What happens if you ignore termites?

Though termites are slow to cause structural damage it does and will happen. Remember one termite eats a very small amount of cellulose, that’s one termite. You could have a colony of several thousand. At that point the numbers add up and structural damage can occur over time.

How do you treat termites?

You call a licensed professional.

How long does it take to get rid of termites?

That is an open question because of the number of colonies you may be dealing with on a single residential lot, you may never “get rid” of all the termites. If the question is dealing with after a treatment how long before it is effective, the general rule is you have to give the materials time to work. That could take up to 90 days. The best plan of action is to place your home or building under a service agreement with a licensed professional. They should provide or offer to provide an annual inspection, give advice of conditions likely to lead to an infestation and recommend preventive protective treatments.

How often should you treat for termites?

Other than a preventive treatment, activity should dictate when you should treat for termites. Most materials last 2 to 5 years depending on the product and application practices. It is not wise nor do we recommend applying compound over compound before the materials have been allowed to perform.

How do you prevent termites in Arizona?

During the construction of any home or building it is wise to have a professional, licensed company preform a pretreatment. This process installs a barrier under the concrete slab. The material binds to the soil below the slab and creates a barrier to subterranean termites. Both repellant and non-repellant materials can be used. Termi-mesh is a good add on, this marine grade stainless steel mesh material is installed and will last the life time of the structure. It is a physical barrier, that complements the installation of a liquid barrier. Even with the best of pretreatments, materials only last so long. The installation of a liquid barrier is no guarantee that you will not have a termite occurrence.

How much does a termite treatment cost in Arizona?

The cost of a treatment varies. Not to dodge the question, it’s just the truth. There are companies from A to Z in Arizona. Some have offers to treat, offer a warranty for five-years at a ridiculously low price. When you encounter that I recommend you check their record. How long have they been in business, remember the warranty is only as good as the longevity of the company.

Termite treatments: A localized spot treatment could be several hundreds of dollars to a complete treatment leading to several thousands of dollars.

Can termites make you sick?

Not to my knowledge, that based on 47 plus years in the business. But that isn’t to say certain allergies or sensitivities could not be affected.

Are termites dangerous?

You bet – if they cause damage to the structure and the structure becomes physically weaken, yes. From a general stand point; termites are not dangerous, meaning they will not attack you like certain species of ants, bees or other insects.

Can termites bite?

Yes, that is how they chew the wood, but they are so small I have not heard of a termite biting a human, breaking the skin the causing great pain.

Are termites active in the winter in Arizona?

Yes, true they do slow a bit with cooler weather, Termites in Arizona are active year-round.

Are creaking floors a sign of termites?

Can be, usually you will see wings, damage or tubbing that is associated with a creaking wood floor, but not always.

Can you hear termites?

No, I can’t but my hearing is, well let’s just say I should wear hearing aids. Termites are known to bang their heads against their galleries to warn the colony of a pending danger. People have often told me I can hear them.

Can you treat your own home for termites?

There are products and materials available for the DIY. I do not recommend it, termites are difficult even for the professional to get a handle on is some cases.

Do termites come back after treatment?

Generally speaking after a professional treatment, the termites should not return in the same location for years. They may however appear in another part to the home or building. It is impossible to install a complete barrier once the structure is built. Standard practices of drilling an injection can still leave areas of entry. Professional’s will do their best to minimize areas of entry.

Additional Resources:

Termite Control Service in Phoenix, AZ