Volume 88 Issue 14 | p. 48 | Newscripts
Issue Date: April 5, 2010

Bugged By Tiny Barbarians At The Gate

Department: Newscripts
Keywords: chlorfenapyr, termites, BASF
Tunnel Vision
Termite swarmers look for their next meal.
Credit: BASF
Tunnel Vision
Termite swarmers look for their next meal.
Credit: BASF

To say that I'm obsessed with termites would be an understatement. Not only am I obsessed, but I'm also truly bugged.

At about this time last year, I ventured down into my basement and discovered SWARMS OF TERMITE SPAWN flitting around in a corner by the window. So I called in the exterminator and had the perimeter of my home treated with BASF's termiticide chlorfenapyr.

BASF markets chlorfenapyr under the clever trade name Phantom. "Great," I thought, "Phantom will sneak up on those wood chompers like a specter in the dark and destroy them before they can digest my wood-frame home." I wrote about the unhappy experience of learning about and choosing a termiticide and a treatment company in an earlier Newscripts (C&EN, April 13, 2009, page 64).

Now that it's spring again, every time I go down into the basement, I shudder to think that I might encounter another infestation. If you live anywhere in the U.S., you can track peak swarm times of Reticulitermes flavipes, the eastern subterranean termite, with the Termite Swarm Alert Map, an online tool. Click the play button and you can follow the termite swarm status for the entire U.S. from January to July. Pest-control firm Terminix has the map on display at terminix.com/information/termite-swarms with the advice to "Get to them before they get to you." Too late for me, however. I've been had.

Last spring's treatment was not a complete success. During the summer, I discovered some spots on the wood floor near the front door that seemed a bit odd. The surface looked a little wavy—like a piece of paper that had been wet, then dried, and wasn't quite flat. I pressed one spot. My finger plunged through the wood to reveal a series of parallel tunnels and a bunch of dastardly diminutive wood chompers scurrying away from me.

"Don't worry," my exterminator said. "Termites work slowly. It takes about a year for a typical colony to eat a 2-foot length of a typical two-by-four," he said, referring to the wooden wall studs that hold up my three-story home. "Wonderful," I thought, "my house is 100 years old and about 25 feet tall. It's gonna collapse any day now."

I've calmed down, but only after another professional inspection. The damage I discovered last summer turned out to be cosmetic and not structural.

Termites are persistent, says Bob Davis, an entomologist for BASF. They'll find their way through any void in a treatment barrier in search of a feast. Any treatment is only as good as the applicator, Davis points out. And the deeper the foundation, the more difficult it is to establish an effective barrier, he says.

Last year, drought conditions throughout the U.S. limited the wood-loving insects' activity. But this year's wet spring has turned much of the country into a termite water park, Davis says.

What worries me even more is that an absence of swarm activity in my basement, or anyone else's for that matter, doesn't mean the termites have gone away. A survey of an infested neighborhood in North Carolina, published in the Journal of Economic Entomology (2008, 101, 1349) and conducted by North Carolina State University entomologist Edward L. Vargo in collaboration with Bayer, found 25 termite colonies per acre.

BASF's Davis notes that the bugs might be out of sight, but that shouldn't give anyone peace of mind. With hundreds of thousands of termites per colony, millions of the little barbarians are just outside the door, waiting for a chance to launch their buzz saws on acres of stick-built homes.

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