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During the spring thaw, termites begin to come to the surface after burrowing underground all winter.

From a scientific standpoint, termites are fascinating creatures.

There are thousands of known species of the insect, which live and work in colonies, much like bees and ants. A typical colony can contain a million members, more or less, that function as a caste system, consisting of workers, soldiers and the reproducing kings and queens. An acre of hospitable land can contain several termite colonies.

They all subside on consuming cellulose, the organic substance that makes up the cell walls of plants and gives wood its fibrous strength. In nature, they're great at chomping away at fallen and aging trees, agents of decomposition, returning organic matter to the earth. But it's when they turn to making a meal out of your wooden house frame or furniture that these plentiful promoters of a healthy ecosystem are recast as creepy, crawly household pests.

In North America, now's the time to be on the lookout for them.

To educate the public about termites and solutions for protecting homes and properties, the National Pest Management Association is observing the fifth annual Termite Awareness Week, which precedes April as National Pest Management Month.

"When the earth is cold and frozen, termites retreat deeper in the ground. They chew on roots and debris. But as springtime comes around and the ground begins to warm up, they start coming back to the surface," said Michael H. Bensche, director of marketing for Braman Termite & Pest Elimination. Based in Agawam, Mass., the company serves the southern New England region of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, eastern New York and southern Vermont.


"In the Berkshires, it's actually early, pre-termite season," said Bensche, who noted that the dynamics and reproductive cycle of the termites may shift, due to an earlier onset of spring-like conditions.

One sure sign is what's known as termite swarming.

This region is home to reticulitermes flavipes, more commonly known as the eastern subterranean termite. When the thaw comes, the breeding termites, males and females with wings that look like flying ants, take what's known as nuptial flight, swarming in the air to mingle and find a mate. Once matched, they land and their wings break off. From there, they take foot to begin excavating a new plot of soil, where they will mate and begin to establish a new colony.

"If people see a pile of wings, that is a sure sign, and they'll want to make a call," said Bensche.

The kings and queens remain underground, as do, for the most part, the soldiers, who protect the colony from other insects and invaders. It's in your garden and home that you'll find the workers, who are responsible for bringing food, the cellulose, back to hungry brothers and sisters below ground.

Bensche said that in addition to food, the key for subterranean termite survival is a warmer climate, preferably more than 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and water or moist environment to keep hydrated.

"They have to maintain contact with soil, which has to do with that moisture requirement," he said. "So the workers bring along with them moist mud tubes, which acts for them as an environmental control."

Another telltale sign of a termite infestation are the brown, pencil-sized tubes these savvy little bugs build as sort of a "two-way highway," Bensche said. In one lane, workers enter a structure to gather cellulose from wood or paper or cotton, and then use the other lane to re-enter the colony's nest.

If you have a soil source, be it a garden or mulched area near the foundation or steps of a house or garage, termite mud tubes can typically be seen extending across foundations or structural beams. The workers themselves look like small, cream-colored insects, about an eighth of an inch in size, that are often found under boards, rocks, mulch or when digging in a garden.

Upon home inspection, if you find wood beams that sound hollow when tapped or that can easily be pierced by a screwdriver or other sharp tool when probed, the termite damage is already being done. The sudden discovery of sawdust, excrement and molting casings are also indicators that you have termites inside your house.

According to the National Pest Management Association, termites cause more than $5 billion in property damage each year, an expense that unfortunately is not covered by homeowners insurance.

Unlike other pests, termites don't really carry disease or are otherwise harmful to humans. "It's totally economic," said Bensche. "They do more economic damage than fire each year. They can undermine the structure of your home."

If you think you have a pest problem, the first thing to do is properly identify the insect. Termites are often mistaken as ants. Bensche said people can either collect a few suspects in a sealed plastic baggie or jar and send them to a pest control agency, or snap a clear picture.

Once identified, a pest control specialist can be called for a more comprehensive probe of the situation. Pest control treatments vary. Household name companies like Braman, Orkin and Terminix use their own blends of liquid chemical baiting and termination methods to either deter, lure and kill, or inhibit the development of termites.

Whichever method you use will likely require multiple treatments and regular monitoring of the area.

Said Jerry Lazarus, third-generation owner and biologist of Braman Termite and Pest Elimination, "Homeowners who notice signs of these wood-destroying pests should contact a pest professional, who can best determine the extent of the problem and recommend a proper solution and treatment."

Jenn Smith can be reached at 413-496-6239.