March 6, 2003 -- Forget about killer bees and voracious fire ants. Aggressive termites that can destroy a new house almost before the paint dries may be heading for a home near you.
Formosan termites cause about $300 million in damages in New Orleans each year, and now they are moving north, east and west. They've already been found in at least 11 states, and scientists say they can attack with such vengeance that they make domestic termites seem almost tame.
East Asian Immigrants
These fierce little critters arrived in southern ports from East Asia at the end of World War II and lay low for decades, gradually increasing their numbers until they were strong enough to attack with gusto. For years now they have plagued New Orleans, which seems to have been built for their specific needs, and scientists have all but given up hope of ever eliminating them from that area.
They've already eaten through scores of structures in the city's famed French Quarter, and when they are finally flushed from a building they take up residence in living trees. Thousands of trees have been killed by the termites, many of which have fallen on structures, causing even more damage.
Ed Bordes, director of the New Orleans Mosquito and Termite Control Board, estimates that 30 percent of the city's live oaks and cypress trees are now infested.
Until fairly recently, scientists had thought the termites were pretty well isolated in the Deep South, but that clearly has changed. Damage estimates across several states now range between $1 billion and $2 billion per year, about the same as caused by all the domestic species combined.
Power in Numbers
Formosan termites have established strongholds from Florida to California, and although scientists first thought the termites would restrict their habitat to warm areas, that may not be the case. Those damp basements in northern regions may be very much to their liking.
According to the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is heading up a New Orleans-based Formosan termite project called Operation Full Stop, these hungry little devils are the most voracious termites in the world. Here are a few reasons why:
Their colonies are huge, thus enabling them to do great damage in a very short period of time while fighting off nearly all efforts to bring them under control. A colony of domestic termites usually ranges in the thousands; Formosan colonies number in the millions.
Domestic colonies will eat about 7 pounds of wood per year. A Formosan colony will eat about 1,000 pounds per year.
They don't just eat wood. When they get thirsty, Bordes says, they can eat the seals out of high-pressure water lines to get at the moisture inside. And they can penetrate cement, brick, plastic and other materials to get to food and water.
A queen termite can lay 2,000 to 3,000 eggs a day, ensuring the survival of colonies that can last for decades.
Come springtime, New Orleans residents can look forward to something locals describe as nothing short of terrifying. Colonies will send out winged "soldiers" by the millions, forming flying armadas that can almost turn the sky dark as they seek out new areas for harvesting.
They're not particularly discriminating. They like new houses as well as old. And it doesn't take them long to do a lot of damage.
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.
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.