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Termites are perhaps some of the most industrious types of insects seen within pest control. The only goal is to reproduce and colonize wood structures, which take on the aspects of a small city once this process takes hold.
Termites are a type of insect that needs to be productive to ensure long-term survival. Part of the productivity this insect is known for is its ability to provide increased protection to all members of a colony.
Subterranean termites, in particular, are a type of termite that sees its colony separated from the main food source, wood. Due to the prolonged distances these insects must travel to and from the colony to the food source, predation is a high risk-factor that this species of termite eventually learned to address.
What Are Termite Mud Tubes?
Termites frequently make small, brown-colored tubes running along the floor and surfaces of structures that are almost always hollow and may look like narrow tree branches. These structures are known as termite mud tubes and are made by subterranean termites to maintain easy and protected access to food sources to and from an underground colony.
The tubes are primarily composed of a substance known as termite mud, which is a mixture of soil and termite fecal matter. A mud tube is primarily a temporary shelter and means of transportation for a traveling subterranean termite.
The mud tube protects the worker termites from possible predators since subterranean termites primarily choose to keep their colony in the ground and travel to and from a wood structure to get food and moisture. Some surfaces are also difficult for the termites to walk across, which is then aided by the mud that termites are used to walking across and living within.
If you discover mud tubes within or around your home, this is a clear confirmation of active subterranean termites. The appearance of mud tubes doesn't necessarily confirm a termite infestation, however, a pest control professional should be contacted to investigate if the tubes are in fact working tubes.
According to the National Center for Biotechnology, termite mud tubes will generally be quickly repaired if the working tubes are damaged or washed away. This means that simply washing away or getting rid of the tube will not remove the infestation.
What Do Termite Mud Tubes Look Like?
A termite mud tube will usually resemble the branches of a tree minus the leaves. Once a subterranean termite colony finds a suitable wood structure, the workers will immediately begin constructing a series of mud tubes to and from the wood structure.
The tubes may appear brown or light brown in color, a lot of this depends on the color of the soil in the surrounding area. Since the tubes provide shelter to the worker termites, the tunnels are always enclosed and are almost always leading to and from wood.
Termites damage the wood that they infest, therefore, you may also see exit holes around the wood leading to the mud tube. To get a confirmed diagnosis of active termites, you will also need to see active termites either within the tubes or crawling into the wood.
A termite mud tube may also look like a fragile pile of mud, which is due to the hollowness of the inside to function as shelter tubes. These types of tubes are also only briefly used since the primary function is temporary to allow the termite colony to explore surrounding areas in search of wood.
Thicker, more durable mud tubes are likely active shelter tubes and are typically up to one inch in diameter. Additionally, some mud tubes may even be suspended from the ground to a wood structure in the ceiling and additional tubes, known as swarm tubes, are also constructed to aid termites with wings leaving a colony for nuptial flights.
There are different varieties of tubes and each type of shelter tubes serve distinct purposes.
How Should I Knock Down Termite Mud Tubes?
There are differing theories as to whether termite tunnels should be knocked down if seen around a home. For the subterranean species, these tunnels are a crucial component in the overall behavior of the species.
If you get rid of the tubes without knowing if you have an active infestation within your home, it will be much harder for an exterminator to find where the food source is located. The appearance of active termite tubes within a home is the easiest and quickest way for professionals to confirm an infestation.
Once a decision has been made, the tubes can then be knocked down or swept up since the professional now knows where the colony is and what wood source they are feeding off of in the home. The tubes are not damaging alone, yet the structures are a vital component of termite activity.
Always allow an exterminator to handle the process for you since there could be instances that will allow the pest control professional to fully know where the problem is within the home.
Why Do Termites Make Mud Tubes?
The two primary purposes behind the construction of a tube are shelter and ease of transportation. Many surfaces within a home are like walking on broken glass to delicate termite feet.
Protection is also needed because of the subterranean species of termite choosing not to live inside of the structure upon which it feeds. With this in mind, there are a few different varieties of tubes with different purposes.
Tubes for Exploring
Subterranean termites will initially start searching for viable wood sources with thin, fragile mud tubes. This type of tube is only meant to be used temporarily and will not usually be connected to a food source.
Tubes for Transportation
The most common type of tube is known as a working tube and this type may have active termites traveling through it if you brush away the soil. These tunnels are very thick and will typically branch out to various lanes for both food transport and lanes to repair any damage to the tunnel.
Tubes for Protection
A third type is known as a termite castle and this tunnel is incredibly wide (upwards of five feet in width) and is used primarily once a year. A castle is almost always surrounded by termite wings as this structure is only used to accommodate and protect swarming alates as they prepare to leave a colony.
You will likely see a termite with wings if you were to ever seek out activity in this type of mud tube. Each year, the alates are vulnerable to predators as they prepare to leave the colony, therefore, this temporary tunnel is constructed to protect the alates as they are guided by workers to exit holes within the castle.
Tubes for Easy Accessibility
The fourth variety of mud tube is known as a drop tube, which is somewhat rare to find in a home. This tunnel looks like a weed that suspends from the ground to the ceiling within a home.
Termites construct a drop tube when there are no viable structures to build a traditional mud tube. This type of tube is also a sign that termites have likely found a structure within the ceiling to feed upon.
Termites make mud tubes for many different reasons and each type of tunnel serves a distinct purpose.
Termite mud tubes are a complex network of tunnels made from termite saliva, feces, and mud. These structures have many different uses with protection, transportation, and exploration being the primary methods of the structures.
Finding these structures is cause for alarm since this indicates a likely active infestation in or around a home. Even with this in mind, you should refrain from immediately discarding the tunnels since this can aid greatly in finding where the colony is and what food source it is connecting to.
Subterranean termites are very elusive, therefore, consultation with a pest control professional is the best course of action before attempting any kind of treatment method.
Xiong, Hongpeng, et al., “Escaping and repairing behaviors of the termite in response to disturbance.” (2018). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5858535/.