Super-Termites Are Munching Across U.S.

By the time they were discovered in one 2-year-old house, they had already eaten out one wall from the basement to the roof, according to scientists who are working desperately to come up with a means of controlling the termites. That doesn't mean eliminating them, at least not for New Orleans.

"Eradication is not a likely scenario," according to one report from the Agricultural Research Service.

But at least the scientists know where to start. New Orleans has become a working laboratory, with residents setting out traps to capture enough of the little beasts for scientists to study. Formosan termites are there in great numbers because they couldn't have designed it better themselves, at least from a termite's perspective.

The city has just the right climate, humid and hot. And many of those wonderful old buildings that dot the city's historical areas are sitting directly on the ground, giving the subterranean termites easy access. Many of the buildings share common walls, allowing the termites to move right on down the street without even venturing outside.

They also build underground tunnels extending hundreds of feet in various directions, thus expanding their options.

According to researchers, sometimes nobody knows there's a problem until a wall falls down.

Fighting Back

The best defense appears to be an offense, according to the scientists. Once the termites establish themselves with huge colonies, it's probably too late to do much about it. So the goal is to nip it early, identifying the termites as they move outward and wiping out colonies before they get too large.

Unfortunately, the critters are pretty clever. Other termites are routinely treated by injecting poison into the ground, but Formosan termites can just move their nests above ground, thus avoiding the toxins.

And not a lot of toxins are effective. The most potent treatment, chlordane, was outlawed in 1988 because it remains active in the soil for 25 years, thus threatening human health as well as other animals. Scientists are now experimenting with growth regulators that will keep the termites from maturing, and they are looking for biological ways to inhibit procreation and even communication within the colony.

They've made some progress, but for now the Formosan termite still has the upper hand. It will take a persistent, expensive, grass-roots effort across many states to bring the problem under control.

But even if the scientists succeed in constraining the termite's range, at least the critters will still have New Orleans to nibble on. As noted above, they couldn't have designed it better themselves.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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