This time of the year, people are flocking to the beach and insects are swarming in the air. While some are just a nuisance, other insects can be quite destructive. I'm talking about termites.

But what exactly are these little buggers? How do they spread? And how do you get rid of them?

Know your bugs

Formosan termites are an introduced pest. Its presence in the United States was first sighted in Charleston in 1957. Termites thrive in the Southeast due to humidity and moisture. Native termites were already established in the Lowcountry, but Formosan termites proved to be much more aggressive. A Formosan colony can have several million termites while native species number less than a million.

In spring, winged termites swarm for a couple of weeks. Ant colonies also exhibit this behavior and look very similar. An ant can be differentiated from a termite by the tight constriction between the abdomen and thorax, or back end and midsection, respectively.

A male and female termite will shed their wings once they contact a solid object and become the king and queen. Once the colony is established, worker termites forage for food. Termites feed on cellulose. This is typically in the form of wood and other paper-like material. They also will chew through other materials such as plastic. They do not, however, chew through concrete. That's a myth.

Termites require ground contact for moisture, although they can thrive in any damp environment, including areas with leaky pipes or faucets. Termites can build mud tubes as superhighways from the ground up to the house. Formosan termites can construct spongy material from wood and saliva that helps retain moisture inside structures.

How they spread

Occasionally, there are rumors that termites are spread through bags of mulch. However, research has shown this to be unlikely due to the chipping process and separation from the colony. Research also has shown that mulch-fed termites have significantly lower survivorship than those that feed on other wood materials. However, infested products such as railroad ties have the potential to spread a colony.

Mulch does not attract termites. It has been shown that it only increases termites where their presence is already established. Because mulch is not a preferred food source, its only contribution to termite presence is creating a bridge from the ground to a wood structure by providing a moist and moderately temperate environment. The same also can be said for other nonwood ground covers such as pea gravel.

Mulch should be kept less than 4 inches thick and at least 6 inches from structures.

Prevention and control

Control of termites should be done by a licensed pest control operator. Termiticides can be applied to the ground around the foundation to form a chemical barrier. Termites will either avoid it or be killed on contact. Various techniques have been used such rodding injection, trenching and drilling into foundation. The termiticide residual remains active for years but will need to be periodically reapplied.

Baiting is another technique. Bait stations are placed around the foundation of the structure containing blocks of wood or other monitoring bait. Pest control operators periodically check the stations. If termite activity is identified, the wood is replaced with slow-acting termiticide bait that is taken back and fed to the colony. The advantage to baiting is lower pesticide use.

In some cases, an insect growth regulator (IGR) is used instead of a termiticide. IGRs limit insect growth, eventually causing the collapse of the colony. An IGR is considerably safer since it specifically targets insect growth through molting rather than poisoning.

Reduce your chances of termite infestation by removing untreated wood (firewood, timbers) in contact with soil and your house. Pressure-treated wood, typically used for decks, is termite resistant. Also, remove dead trees and stumps near your house.

Rain gutters reduce moisture around the foundation as long as the downspouts angle water away from the house. Adjust irrigation to prevent water on the house.

Be sure to research pest control operators before committing to one. You can check licenses and violation histories through the Clemson University pesticide regulation department at www.clemson.edu or by calling 864-646-2150.

Tony Bertauski is a horticulture instructor at Trident Technical College. Email him at gardening@postandcourier.com.