Powderpost Beetle

This site gets a lot of e-mails from people who see one of the common signs of drywood termites - sawdust-looking material that you find around wooden parts of your house or furniture. Most people immediately suspect termites, because they're the most common wood-damaging insect in the U.S. and definitely the most well-known. This page is about another type of bug that also eats wood and creates little piles of sawdust-material - the powder post beetle.
Powder-post beetles are a kind of insect that eats wood, much like termites. They eat certain kinds of hardwoods, including mahogany, oak, and hickory.
 
They can infest much, much smaller pieces of wood than a termite colony can, because they're individual insects that don't need each other to function.
 
Even things as small as a fishing pole with a wooden handle have been reported to have infestations.  Most of the damage to the wood is done by larva of the beetles and not the adults, as they burrow around inside the wood.
 

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They aren't really one kind of beetle - they are several different species that usually get lumped together under the same name.

People often get them from importing wood products from other countries. They are very common in tropical areas, so bamboo or tropical hardwoods are key suspects. Infestations are primarily in newer wood (if it's older than about five years, they usually avoid it). The biggest cause of an infestation is not storing or drying the wood correctly. You can also get them by storing furniture someplace such as a barn, a shed, etc. where it can get exposed to them.

How do I tell the difference between powder-post beetles and termites?

There are a couple of ways:

1) They don't look anything alike, so if you've actually seen flying insects that look like termites (the swarmers), it's not the beetles.

2) The big thing to look for with powderpost beetles is holes in the wood. Both eject the "sawdust" out of wood from little tiny holes. Drywood termites, however, will fill the holes back up with a mud-like material, which dries and is often indistinguishable from the wood itself. If you have powder-post beetles, you will usually see visible holes all around where there was "sawdust."

3) If you have powder-post beetles, you will often hear strange ticking noises in the wood at night when the beetles are active.

Do I have an active infestation?

Just because you see sawdust doesn't mean you have an active infestation of the beetles. A lot of times they'll go away on their own. The best way to tell is to tape over all of the holes and see if any new ones show up. However, keep in mind that the beetles usually don't make new holes except during Spring and Summer.

What should I do?

If you have powder-post beetles, and not termites, the damage will be a lot slower. At some point, though, you need to get the wood treated. Often this can be done with borate-based treatments (there are a few listed on the main page of this site), but if the infestation is deep in the interior of your house it may need to be fumigated. As a general rule, if it's furniture that is infested, you may be able to do it yourself by replacing boards or treating them. If it's the structure of your house, I would at a minimum have it inspected before attempting to apply borate treatment on your own. Other things that can help are reducing the moisture in the air and varnish on the surface of wood (which will discourage adults from laying eggs there).

What do the beetles look like?

You can see pictures of powder-post beetles online here, here, and pictures of the damage here.

Sources and Useful Links:

http://ohioline.osu.edu/hyg-fact/2000/2090.html

http://www.ca.uky.edu/entomology/entfacts/ef616.asp

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Powder_post_beetle

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