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TERMITE TACTICS : When Bugs Worm Their Way In, There's More Than One Way Out

March 13, 1993|JOHN O'DELL and Times Staff Writer

Allen and Marilyn Soule knew they had problems when they spotted sawdust on Allen's garage workbench and he hadn't been sawing anything.

The dust was frazz--termite droppings--and as a result of the infestation by the pesky pests, the Soules will be spending about $650 later this month for a visit from an exterminator.

The Huntington Beach couple wasn't particularly unlucky--they've lived in their house for all of its 24 years, and this is the first time they've had to deal with termites.

And because they did what an increasing number of homeowners are doing and selected an alternative treatment that avoids fumigation, the cost is about half as much.

That can be good news for a lot of Southern California homeowners, because if you live in the Southland for any length of time, your home is almost certain to be infested with termites at least once--it isn't unusual, termite control specialists say, for a house to be hit every two or three years.

That's because termites, like tourists at Disneyland on the Fourth of July, are everywhere.

"You can't eradicate them; you can only control them," says Ron Bates, owner of Absolute Termite Control in Foundain Valley.

And even if we could wipe them out, we shouldn't.

Termites have a larger role in the scheme of things than simply making life miserable for people whose homes they pick for an entree.

"They are an essential part of the whole chain of nature," said Brian Olson, general manager of the Bugman, a Fullerton pest control company. "They are the ones who grind fallen trees back into mulch so the forest can renew itself. Actually, we're the ones invading their territory."

The fact that there aren't many forests in the Southland doesn't deter the little bugs--the tens of thousands of wood-framed homes we have built over the years make Orange County and the rest of Southern California a veritable smorgasbord for termites.

Add to that the fact that, until very recently, none of the commonly used treatments for termites had much residual value and it becomes easy to see why there are nearly 20 pages of pest control company ads in the Pacific Bell Yellow Pages.

But people still get angry when, a year or two after buying a new home or after having an existing house fumigated, they find the pulpy tan frazz or the darker piles of fine pellets that mean termites are back at work.

"An awful lot of people really think it is possible to prevent termites," said Lauren Schaap, manager of the Orange branch office of Truly Nolen Exterminating Inc.

"It's not."

But it is possible to lessen the chances that they'll find your house tastier than your neighbors'.

And this is a good time to develop your termite awareness--periods of warm weather after a rain are a prime migrating time for termites, which come in two forms: dry wood and subterranean.

*

Termites get into homes and other buildings in two ways--they are already in the lumber used to build a structure or they fly or are blown in after swarming out of their home colonies.

Swarming occurs in warm periods when the biological alarm clock in a particular colony goes off.

The alarms sound as the population reaches critical mass--which can be as few as 5,000 dry wood termites, which live and breed in wood, or as many as 120,000 subterranean termites, which make their homes under the ground so they'll have a constant source of moisture. (They build mud tunnels to reach the wood that they eat.)

When a colony gets big enough, the members begin swarming--although not in the huge clouds associated with swarms of bees. Also unlike bees, each termite swarm contains a multitude of fertile egg-layers, or queens.

It takes just one queen and a few breeding males to start a new colony, which is good news for termites and bad news for homeowners. It often costs as much to repair damage done by termites as it does to get rid of the pests.

Dry wood termites on the swarm enter a house or other wood-framed structure by boring in through exposed wood, so a good rule of thumb for anyone trying to minimize exposure to termites is to keep all wood painted and to keep all paint in good repair.

But most of us don't think of painting all the wood inside our garages or attics--and a few termites blown through an attic vent in a Santa Ana windstorm can be the start of something big.

Subterranean termites spread the same way as their dry wood brethren--they sprout wings and fly. Like the dry wood kind, they are pretty weak flyers, so they tend to go wherever the wind blows them. And when they get there, all they need for happiness is a cool, damp patch of dirt with a source of wood nearby.

And it doesn't have to be all that near. "I've seen them build a tunnel almost three feet long to get to a piece of wood," Bates said.

That's why, pest control people say, it is critical to keep wood and earth from coming into contact. And that means all wood, including piles of firewood, scrap lumber and even untreated fencing.

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