A House Full of Boring Insects, or How not to Have Your House Eaten (Again)

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For the uninitiated, this entry follows a previous guide to not having your house eaten by dry rot, so let's talk about piles.

No, not those (painful, aren't they), but those little piles of sawdust you keep noticing when Henry the Hoover has one of his infrequent airings.1.

Worrying, aren't they?


Sure about that?

We usually share our homes and lives with a host of insects, like it or not. Most of them are completely harmless, some are mostly harmless (see what I did there?). Some, however, are a complete bunch of timber-munching, frass-making boring beetles, and need to be dealt with.

To start with, the one that most people have at least heard of is the Common Furniture Beetle (Anobium Punctatum), or woodworm. These little blighters live in cut and dried timber, where it tends to be the larvae that cause the most damage by gnawing along the grain under the surface. The adults emerge through the timber to mate (usually between May and September), leaving a 1-2mm hole, and a pile of fresh dust, called "frass". The frass will be slightly gritty when rubbed between finger and thumb, and under magnification will be small, lemon shaped pellets. They're not keen on painted or varnished timber and not overly fond of most hardwoods. Softwood floors (particularly the underside and the edges of the floor boards) and roof timbers are favourite prey, but they will also attack old furniture and picture frames. To do any serious damage, they have to be ignored for a pretty long time, and happily treatment is fairly simple using permethrin-based insecticide. Modern treatments use micro-emulsions which are basically tiny globules of treatment in a water suspension, meaning that treatment is much less hazardous, and with lower odour.

Commonly mistaken for woodworm are several other species such as:

  • Wood Weevil (Euophryum sp.) which live in very wet timber, but are smaller and tend to do more damage along the line of the timber grain.
  • Biscuit Beetle (Stegobium sp.) which are about the same size or a little smaller, but live on discarded crumbs, grain, cat biscuits etc. These tend to be a reddish-brown in colour, and have a smooth pronotum (the bit that covers the top of the head) whereas the Furniture Beetle has a pronounced hump like a monk's cowl.
  • Bark Boring beetles (many species, depending on the type of tree) which only live beneath the bark of live or recently felled trees. Most commonly noticed when people bring logs into the house for their wood burner - the adults emerge and congregate on window ledges, trying to get back out again.

If you are fortunate enough to live in a nice period house with oak beams (or you are considering buying one), you may be lucky enough to be woken in the dead of night by a `clicking` sound like the ticking of a large watch. This may belong to the Deathwatch Beetle (Xenobium Rufovillosum), a persistent offender and serial chomper. These little devils make larger holes than woodworm, typically 4mm, with more frass which is dark brown or black, and bun-shaped. Deathwatch have a much longer lifecycle than woodworm, and the deep-seated larvae can be difficult to treat. If left unchecked, they can make a serious mess of a piece of oak, and render it structurally as much use as dried spaghetti.

Far less common is the House Longhorn Beetle (Hylotrupes Bajulus), a really nasty woodborer imported into the UK by mistake and generally found in some areas of South London and Surrey (hence the other common name, the Camberley Beetle). These insects really do make a mess of softwood timber, often eating the insides and leaving a thin veneer of timber on the outside. Exit holes of the adult beetles are oval and around 10mm across. Treatment of these involves removing any infected timber (and normally burning it) and treating the rest with some seriously heavy-duty jollop. Not for kids or the faint-hearted.

Also uncommon, but often mistaken for woodworm, is the Powder Post Beetle (Lyctus Brunneus), which is also a forest insect but can survive the cutting and drying process to be incorporated into furniture and flooring. Exit holes are about 2mm across, but the frass tends to be tightly packed and has the consistency of fine flour. They will not infect any other cut timber, and there really is no treatment available. The best advice is to get reparation from whoever sold you the offending article under the Sale of Goods Act (as the goods are not fit for purpose).

Once again, the best advice we can give is that you DO:

  • Contact a reputable company which is a member of the Property Care Association (www.property-care.org)
  • Get a proper inspection by a qualified surveyor
  • Get it treated if possible
  • Get a decent guarantee worth more than the paper it is printed on (most reputable companies offer insurance backed guarantees)

and DON'T:

  • Hack away at innocent bits of timber or random beetles with axes, knives or any kind of sharp things
  • Swear at them (they rarely understand English, or if they do they're not admitting it)
  • Attack them with flamethrowers
  • Panic
1I know,that's technically two different manufacturers, but I'm an equal opportunities vacuum user.

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