Scary swarms of Formosan termites are likely to be popping up just after dusk across the New Orleans area over the next two weeks, and at least one entomologist is recommending a strategy that flies in the face of tradition: Dont go hide in your home.
The termites are making a mistake one time a year and showing themselves, said Joe Martin, a co-owner of the New Orleans area Terminix franchise. This is the time when we can locate where they are and maybe where theyre coming from.
Martin recommends taking advantage of stay-at-home orders to do a careful search around the foundation of your home for tell-tale mud tunnels that provide a safe passageway from ground nests into walls, and knock them off. Make sure theres no mulch or stacked firewood piled up against foundations, as the termites will use them as cover to hide their tunnels.
The first significant swarm of Formosan termites actually occurred in early April when just the right swarming conditions appeared at dusk: high humidity, no wind and temperatures nearing 90 degrees. The biggest swarms in the New Orleans area in most years have been around Mother's Day.
Each termite colony contains different versions of the insects, called castes, that perform different functions, with the reproductive version having wings that allow them to fly about 300 yards away from their nest to create a new colony. When they land, the individual insects lose their wings and search for a mate, a source of water and a source of cellulose, or wood.
The Formosan termite its scientific name is Coptotermes formosanus actually is from mainland China. It invaded the New Orleans area and other coastal locations in the United States in the aftermath of World War II, hitching a ride in wooden packing crates full of military equipment.
Unlike native termites, which nest underground, the Formosan termite often nests above ground, taking advantage of moist wood resulting from leaky roofs or pipes.
But they also infest trees, especially water and live oaks.
We are always preaching at Terminix to our inspectors, its estimated that 50 percent of oak trees have termites, so every time you should be looking at the tree in the yard during a termite inspection," Martin said. "Because that could be the source.
The termites create shelter tubes of mud between pieces of bark. Martin describes the visible brown patch on a trunk or limb where the flying insects launch into the air as a swarm castle.
Theres now evidence that the Formosan termite is expanding its range in the United States by invading forested areas near infested urban locations, according to a recent study.
Scientists have known for years that most new Formosan termite infestations in the U.S. are the result of people transporting the insects. Forschler pointed to 10 small infestations in the Atlanta area in the late 1980s that were linked by DNA evidence to a single shipment of railroad ties from New Orleans.
But researchers also know that the flying version of the termites naturally extends its range by flying towards the light of the moon. A major reason for the intensity of urban infestations is that the insects began flying towards street lights, porch lights and lights in windows instead.
But the study found that the moon remains a way that the insects are slowly spreading out from urban areas. In forested areas just outside New Orleans, such as the woods in lower Algiers, researchers found that the termites had infested between 57% and 67% of trees, and that the hollows in those trees were significantly greater than in trees without Formosans. A similar pattern was seen in forested areas outside of Charleston, S.C.
Tree infestations remain a problem throughout New Orleans, according to Carrie Cottone, principal research entomologist with the New Orleans Mosquito, Termite and Rodent Control Board.
We are working through a list of suspected infected trees, she said, injecting them with a foam termiticide that coats interior hollows. In some locations, including Jackson Square and City Park, bait stations also are installed, which contain a slow-acting insecticide that termites bring back to the nest, where its fed to the queen and disrupts the ability of new insects to form their hard exoskeleton.
Cottone said her team also will be closely monitoring sticky traps in the French Quarter, cards hung on lightposts that catch flying insects, to see whether the reduced swarming seen last year is repeated.
As part of a 14-year experiment to see if comprehensive use of baits would significantly reduce damage from Formosan termites, the U.S. Department of Agriculture paid for bait stations to be installed on every property in the French Quarter.
Survey results showed active termites found in the Quarter declined by 95%, and the number of alates, the flying versions of the insects, dropped by between 44% and 76% each year.
The citys continued surveys are aimed at determining whether the reduction continues.
Cottone said that her workers are running into enough pest control operators in the Quarter to indicate that a significant number of building owners are keeping their treatment contracts up to date.
Meanwhile, LSU students are studying how Formosan termites sense chemicals by using their antennae, and then use the chemical signals to interact with their nestmates, find food or avoid areas treated with insecticides, said Qian Karen Sun, director of the universitys urban entomology program.
My research focuses on how do they detect the environment, including their social environment, chemically, and how do they respond to their environmental cues behaviorally, Sun said. With that knowledge, hopefully we can better understand why this termite is so successful, and what we can do to aid pest control.
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When termites swarm, don't hide; track them down ...
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