Campaign aims to stop feared termite spreading in South Florida before it’s too late

Nov 29, 2012

The following article was published in the South Florida Sun Sentinel on November 29, 2012:

Florida aims to stop feared termite spreading in South Florida before its too late

By David Fleshler


A dangerous Caribbean termite that’s consuming trees, walls and ceilings in Dania Beach will be the target of a renewed eradication campaign, with state officials saying this may be their last chance before the species spreads through South Florida.

The Nasutitermes corniger termite, whose bizarre behavior includes constructing above-ground nests the size of beachballs and digging visible brown tunnels up the sides of houses, first turned up in Dania Beach in 2001. Agriculture officials thought they eradicated it, but it turned up again last year, and despite the aggressive use of pesticides on nests and feeding tunnels, it keeps showing up.

Pest control professionals, scientists and the Florida Department of Agriculture met in Dania Beach on Wednesday to implement a new eradication strategy before the arrival of the spring flight season, when the termites fly off to found new colonies, threatening to spread the range of the wood-eating insects.

“Certainly all of South Florida could be at risk, up into Central Florida,” said Barbara Thorne, professor of entomology at the University of Maryland, who is helping plan the campaign. “Once this gets out, there will be no containing it, ever. So we’re trying to deal with this now.”

State officials had announced an apparent success against the termite in May, saying they had sprayed 47 sites over a square mile west of Interstate 95 in Dania Beach and found no evidence of live nests. But they also said they would be surveying the area indefinitely, and their surveys found new hotspots spreading out from the area of original infestation.

“We’re still getting activity in the area we treated,” said Steven Dwinell, assistant director of the Florida Department of Agriculture’s Division of Agricultural Environmental Services. “We weren’t as successful as we’d hoped.”

Allen Fugler, executive vice president of the Florida Pest Management Association, which organized the meeting along with the Association of Structural Pest Control Regulatory Officials, said the initial priority will be to come up a strategy to prevent them from spreading in spring.

“We’re going to look for something as a stopgap before the start of the season,” he said. “Eradication is very difficult.”

Details of the new campaign are still being worked out. The Department of Agriculture is asking the Legislature for $200,000 to hire two full-time workers to seek and destroy termite colonies in Dania Beach. Dwinell said the initial discussions with pest control professionals suggested the new campaign will involve them more heavily, as well as more outreach to the public. And rather than simply spraying nests with pesticide, they will remove and destroy them.

In its rainforest home, the termite performs an essential function by consuming the dead interior wood of trees, returning the nutrients to the food web to support the rainforest’s rich biological diversity.

In South Florida, it can turn walls into the consistency of shredded wheat. Termites, of course, are nothing new to South Florida, but this one has caused concern for several reasons. These termites live in trees and travel above ground, which means they would not compete with underground termites, leading to an increase in the total number of termites targeting your house.

They are difficult to find because they can build substantial colonies before a nest becomes visible. They have an appetite for all kinds of wood and can live in many different parts of a house.

“This termite has pretty much every trick in the book,” said Thorne, who spent two years in Panama studying the species while working on her doctorate at Harvard. “It’s very flexible in where it lives and what it eats, and it grows very quickly. They spread quickly. They’re not fussy about what they eat.”

At a vacant house in Dania Beach just north of Griffin Road, spidery brown lines up the sides of the house mark the termite’s feeding tubes.

John Warner, an entomologist and owner of Shalom Pest Control of Boca Raton, pointed to the tubes and the withered, shredded wood on the underside of the roof. The tubes had been treated with pesticides, leaving nothing alive in them, but there could be a nest inside the house. The big concern, he said, was to kill as many as possible before the migration season.

“They will go out and start new infestations,” he said. “They will start new colonies.”


About the termite

Name: Nasutitermes corniger, a tree-dwelling termite

Native habitat: The Caribbean

Appearance: Ant-like, dark brown or blackish

Behavior: Unlike subterranean termites, searches for food at or above ground level, establishing nests 6 inches to 36 inches in diameter. Digs foraging tubes to food sources such as houses, boats, trees, ladders and tool handles.

In South Florida: Arrived in 2001, probably to a Dania Beach marina in wooden pallets

If you have them: Call the Florida Department of Agriculture at 1-888-397-1517.

Sources: Florida Department of Agriculture, University of Florida