1. Archive

Wood antiques and the termite diet

Published May 6, 1990|Updated Oct. 17, 2005

Spring turns many a heart to romance. Trouble is, human beings aren't the only creatures inspired by the weather. Termites, those nasty, burrowing insects looking for a mate and a nest to call their own, swarm this time of year.

Most of us know to watch out for subterranean termites coming up from the soil under the house. But many an unwitting homeowner invites dry-wood termites to a love feast by carrying them through the front door in a piece of furniture.

Even if the antiquated pine chest belonging to your grandparents has a pedigree, or the early Victorian four-poster bed came from a reputable antique dealer, when you bring old wood furniture into your home, check it for termites, experts say.

"Termites are not a class-conscious bug," warned Chris Shaw, a Brandon antique store owner. "They are not prejudiced. They can go anywhere. The nicest family antique passed down from one generation to the next can have termites."

And don't wait until you awaken to find discarded wings on your carpet from termites that swarmed overnight, or worse, until the termites begin nesting in the rest of the house. Check the piece before you buy or take it home, advised Shaw, whose Sweet Memories antique shop is full of old wood furniture.

"Look for obvious damage," she suggested. "Check the bottom of a piece because termites often enter there. Turn it upside down. Push on the wood, feeling for areas soft to the touch. Look inside drawers. Tilt them from side to side to see if dust comes from the crevices."

Dust signals the silent devastation going on inside some of Tampa's most priceless antiques, reported Susan Carter, curator of the Henry B. Plant Museum at the University of Tampa.

"When you vacuumed you could see the dust underneath the piece," said Carter, who cares for the eclectic collection of antique furniture and framed art, purchased by Plant more than a hundred years ago to furnish his hotel.

The university paid $400,000 to have a pesticide company tent Plant Hall from verandas to minarets in December 1987 and exterminate the termites, she said.

"Now we're dealing with the repercussions," she added. "The bugs are gone, but the hollowed-out frames and shells of chairs have to be repaired."

Wood restoration due to termite infestation probably started in southern coastal cities with the arrival of the first wooden treasure chest with the Spanish conquistadors.

Based on the number of homes reported treated for termites, Miami and Tampa are the top two cities in the nation for both subterranean and dry-wood termites, reported Chip Girkin, Tampa manager for Orkin Pest Control.

And this is the time of year when termites swarm, Girkin cautioned.

"There's no preventive measure for this," he said. "Before you bring a wood antique into your home, have it fumigated for termites. If you can't get it to a pesticide company before bringing it home, wrap it in plastic to keep any termites from swarming out."

But only a handful of pesticide companies handle wood pieces that need to be fumigated, said Bill Bargren, Hillsborough County entomologist. And you must take your wood pieces to them, where they will fumigate them inside a vault or chamber.

"Fumigation is highly technical," Bargren added. "Don't be afraid to ask questions. Ask when was the last time they fumigated a piece as old as yours. A professionally trained fumigator that does routine fumigations every day will be able to answer your questions.

"Better yet, make termite inspection and treatment a condition of sale before you buy old wood furniture," Bargren advised.

Figure an added cost to the purchase of your antique, depending on its size, of $35 and up to have professional fumigation done.

But if the wood piece is small enough, try placing it in your freezer for a couple of days, directed Arnie Kaplan, Truly Nolan Pest Control manager in Tampa. "But beware that most wood will react to the cold," warned Kaplan, an antique collector himself. "You'll get warping if moisture gets in. Let it dry on its own and reach room temperature slowly. A sudden change might do damage."

Pesticide operators say it's best not to take chances with larger pieces.

"Every piece I buy I fumigate whether I see termites or not," Kaplan declared. "The termites could be in the furniture for three to seven years before you actually see any evidence."

Otherwise, you might end up having to tent your entire house, said Kaplan, who helped oversee the tenting of Plant Hall. "It only takes two termites to get things started."


This site no longer supports your current browser. Please use a modern and up-to-date browser version for the best experience.

Chrome Firefox Safari Edge