The Enemy Within

Oct 19, 2023

Dry rot, wet rot, woodworm.. Given how susceptible timber can be to the depredations of damp and larval insects, it’s a wonder how our roofs, walls and floors manage to survive so long.

Don’t get me wrong, these gnawing bugs play an essential part in the great scheme of life. The world would be otherwise piled high with dead timber. They keep the great cycle of birth, growth, death and decay going. But please, stay out in forest or field, and spare our houses and our precious wooden floors.

What we know as woodworm is a generic term for the larval stages of various flying beetles that feed on wood. As there are more species of beetles than those of all other insects put together, it’s no surprise that some have managed to make a tasty meal out of cellulose. When we chew a pencil or toothpick, it’s a little extra roughage to scour our system. For them it’s the food of the Gods.

Over 300 beetles are wood eaters but only four have the potential to cause serious damage to Britain’s buildings and furniture. These flying beetles enter buildings and lay their eggs in cracks. The resultant larvae chomp away for several years before pupating, to emerge as adults to find a mate and start again.

The furniture woodworm often betrays itself by small piles of dust, known quaintly as frass – not to be confused with a certain Russian beverage. The almost obligatory one-time habit of depositing a wickerwork basket in the attic (for that biannual picnic in June) certainly provided a tasty focus for woodworm infestations.

And what of the most pernicious of all these pests? The dreaded death watch beetle. This almost legendary beast is blatant in proclaiming its unwanted presence in the roofs of houses and especially churches.  Its tick ticking can be appreciated as an ironic comment on a funeral or wedding – though the reality is that the male is banging its head to attract female beetles.

Although the death watch can either fly in or be brought in by untreated timbers, it only infests damp timber with a moisture level of at least 14%.  And this must already be affected by some kind of fungal rot – in hardwoods such as oak, ash and horse chestnut.

As the larva bores into the heart of the wood, it is rare for any surface manifestation to become apparent. Specialist diagnosis is therefore required, such as measuring moisture levels or using ultrasound to establish the presence of holes deep within the timber.

Prevention is always preferable, especially good ventilation to keep damp down and spraying with boric acid. Serious attacks require the treatment and fumigation only available from professionals.

And if damage is severe? No need for despair. A rotten or eaten floorboard can be replaced with like for like, in age or at least appearance. Just make sure you go to someone you can trust. A firm who know their stuff and source from reliable sources, whether new or reclaimed.

You know who we mean!