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The dangers of the death watch beetle

PUBLISHED: 15:51 01 March 2011 | UPDATED: 16:08 01 March 2011

Frank Davey, chartered surveyor

Frank Davey, chartered surveyor

Archant Norfolk Photographic © 2009

Frank Davey talks about the effect on properties of the death watch beetle in his latest column.

If you live in a house without oak or elm timbers, or one which is modern, it is unlikely that you are host to death watch beetle. If your property is older and has hardwood timbers it is much more likely that you are. Correct, it’s not good news.

As a type of woodworm, it is the larvae which causes the destruction, the beetle itself is relatively harmless and is a good source of food for spiders. I love its technical name, Xestobium rufovillosum’, it conjures up ideas of zestful roof villains munching away timbers, just as I imagine to happen. Death watch beetle affects oak or elm mostly, usually already damp, and the male makes a ticking noise by banging its head on the wood. This mating call can be heard in a quiet house, particularly in the silence of the bedside vigil of waiting for someone to pass away, as in the ‘death watch’.

The superstitious came to see this as a prediction of impending death and the noise was feared even in a healthy household.

Those mock timbers in newly fashioned “olde worlde” pubs are full of the ravages of death watch beetle, with lots of 3mm (eighth of an inch) size holes and worn away timbers. The beetle can be two or three times that size and another beetle, more common in the home counties, is even larger, the house longhorn beetle affects pine (softwood) and is a notifiable pest. It has only recently been realised that many treatments for death watch beetle do diddley squat. The rot and consequent infestation often occurs in the heart of the timber due to sapwater, and chemicals won’t reach there. Despite conventional thinking, the beetle doesn’t always emerge from the timber to mate and lay eggs, and the female has been observed to crawl back into flight holes to lay eggs deep beneath the limits of treatment. Crafty beings these ladies, my wife isn’t even half that devious when she wants something.

Key-hole surgery isn’t just for us (or pampered pets) nowadays, old houses are often valuable historic listed buildings and ultra-sound is one method increasingly used to identify the hidden cavities in which the beetle might live, and micro-drilling and injection used for the treatment of the beetle. And yes, you can use a stethoscope to detect the tapping but you might have an awful long wait- I have never heard one!

The good news is that it will probably die off if wood is thoroughly dry. Sleep peacefully.

Frank says every case is different; this column represents personal views and should not be relied upon as formal professional advice.

Frank Davey FRICS is a consultant with Allman Woodcock, chartered building and quantity surveyors, 10-11 Tombland, Nowich NR3 1HF.

Call him on 01603 610243 or email fdavey@allmanwoodcock.com

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