In 2012, University of Georgia entomologists Dr. Su Yee Lim and Dr. Brian Forschler formally described a new species of subterranean termite, Reticulitermes nelsonae. The species is described from Sapelo Island, Ga., and can be found in North Carolina and Florida, as published in a recent issue of the scientific journal Insecta Mundi.
What is the day-to-day impact for the PMP? Probably not much in the short term, according to Forschler, but the discovery does help long-term research goals of making specific termites easier to identify, and similar research can in turn help fully implement monitoring programs for termites around structures.
“This is the kind of information the industry is going to require,” Forschler said. The absence of this sort of technology to monitor termites now leaves PMPs without a way to identify the species or colony that may be around a home, Forschler said.
Identification. Reticulitermes nelsonae joins four other described termite species native to the Eastern United States, each of the Reticulitermes genus: virginicus, hageni, malletei and flavipes. Forschler and Lim were able to distinguish nelsonae from the others using DNA sequencing, morphology and behavioral data such as flight times. The picture is far from complete, however, according to Forschler.
The identification of these five species sets the stage for a more specific understanding of colonies and how they act, which can in turn better allow PMPs to control those colonies. For instance: R. flavipes is an invasive species found on three continents, and most often found infesting buildings in Georgia, according to Forschler. However, if you were to count termite species in a wood lot in southern Georgia or Mississippi, you’d more likely find R. nelsonae. “We can finally now sort out which termites are responsible for infestations,” he said.
“More work needs to be conducted to learn about the distribution of these species,” he said. “But now that we can properly identify all these species, a condition that did not exist before 2011, that work can commence and maybe in five years we’ll be able to answer that question.”
An Easier Way. Forschler said that identification of R. nelsonae was “20 years in the making.” In the 1990s, identifying termites with a dichotomous key was limiting (of which Forschler quotes a saying he says is popular amongst entomology students: “dichotomous keys are made by people who don’t need them for people who can’t use them.”)
“If you don’t have the character they’re asking for, you can’t identify,” he said. R. nelsonae threw off the dichotomous keys. “We only had three possibilities. It could have been this one, could be that one, but it was kind of in between,” Forschler said, adding that the genus is known for its phenotypic plasticity, or range in size and shape. “It took us 20 years to sort it out; I think we finally got it.”
Forschler said that the new species is named after Lori Nelson of the U.S. Forest Service in California, who Forschler credited as one of the first to discover the species. “I was working with her and her boss, she kept saying, ‘This one is way different,’ but we didn’t have any way of proving it.”
A Better System. Forschler said research like this supports long-term goals of developing a kind of system for PMPs to easily identify a specific kind of termite colony they may be dealing with.
“The ultimate idea is that a PMP is going to be able to take a termite photo or sample and send it to a service that will return information to them about a colony,” Forschler said. While PMPs may have some time to wait until this kind of tool is available on the field of termite battle, Forschler says it’s not out of the realm of possibility. “These things are a reality on the research end, and the potential for commercializing that is possible.”
The author is associate editor of PCT magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.