An Open Window into Termite Destruction

Features - Industry Awareness

PPMA’s Tiny Termite House project gives homeowners a powerful visual of termites and how they damage structures.

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It’s a statistic very familiar to those involved in the structural pest control industry: Termites cause more than $5 billion in property damage annually.

But it can be difficult for homeowners — unless they are among the unfortunate ones to have had their structures damaged by termites — to fully grasp the destructiveness of these minuscule insects, which measure ¼ inch or less.

The Professional Pest Management Alliance (PPMA), the public outreach arm of the National Pest Management Association (NPMA), has addressed this longstanding industry challenge head on with the Tiny Termite House, a groundbreaking study and video project that revealed the destructive nature of termites as never before.

Released in May, the Tiny Termite House video has been picked up by dozens of local and national news outlets (see related story, below), helping PPMA achieve its goal of educating consumers about the dangers of termites and giving them a better understanding of the importance of working with a licensed pest control professional.

AN IDEA IS BORN. Scientists and pest management professionals have long understood termites’ destructive capabilities. And while the pest control industry has had success in getting the word out about termites and termite damage through traditional marketing, PPMA believed there was room to grow consumer awareness about termite dangers.

PPMA wanted to create a campaign that would best utilize present-day marketing tools and strategies. “In order to engage today’s consumers, you have to make science fun and interesting, and it has to be visual because everything is so visual these days,” said Cindy Mannes, executive director, PPMA.

So, PPMA actually “thought small” for a big marketing campaign. “The germ of the idea was: How about if we build a three-dimensional dollhouse and set termites loose and see how it goes?” Mannes said. “It kind of grew from there.”

In fall 2017, Mannes approached the PPMA Board of Directors, which loved the potential of this project to raise consumer awareness about termite damage. Further, the board liked that the project provided PPMA investors added value by providing them with much needed termite photos/videos that could be used for marketing purposes (see related story, below). The board green-lighted funding for the project, with the goal of launching the videos in spring 2018.

IDENTIFYING RESOURCES. To make this project work, PPMA needed to find a specialized group that not only understood the science of termites, but could create miniature models and capture high-quality, professional video.

At an industry meeting last fall, Mannes talked to Mark Neterer, business leader, Dow AgroSciences Pest Management and Turf & Ornamental, who suggested she reach out to the New Orleans Mosquito, Termite and Rodent Control Board (NOMTRCB), a group with diverse talents that conducts field research projects.

Termites attacking the Tiny Termite House’s foundation.
Details like doors that open and close gave the house a realistic look and feel.
A glue gun being used to construct and install a window frame.
NOMTCB collected termites for this project from a termite monitoring bucket filled with cardboard, which attracts termites because of the cellulose present in them.
Termites attacked the Tiny Termite House just as they do actual homes. This photo shows mud tubes that termites had formed along the slab foundation.

At PestWorld 2017 in Baltimore, Mannes approached NOMTRCB Director Claudia Riegel with the idea. Riegel and her team enthusiastically agreed to take on this project. With the goal of releasing the videos in May, the NOMTRCB team had a tight time frame to make it happen.

Because winter was fast approaching Riegel knew termite collection would be the first item on her team’s “to do” list. “We have collection buckets buried in the ground all throughout New Orleans, and we were able to collect all of the termites we needed from one location — they were all Formosan termites,” Riegel recalled.

Since the project took place in the winter/spring time frame, great care was taken to house the termites in a climate-controlled environment. The termites were kept in a sandy soil that was misted to give the termites a water source. NOMTRCB Senior Entomologist Ed Freytag weighed the termites, which is where NOMTRCB came up with the 500,000-plus figure.

One of the NOMTRCB staff members with specialized skills is termite technician Shaun Broadley. While tracking termites is Broadley’s day job, his true passion is art. He was given the assignment and resources, and then was pretty much left on his own to create the dollhouse.

“My whole life I’ve always done different sorts of art with sculpture and wood, but I’ve never really done anything like this before,” he said.

Broadley’s initial research involved going online to look at a variety of model houses, including ones with floor plans. “Then, I looked at different building techniques, how they actually build houses, and I just tried to replicate that on a small scale.”

What Broadley and the NOMTRCB team designed was a miniature, two-story home that included many of the same features found in a life-size home, such as insulation, plumbing and electricity — and even added a moisture source to create the ultimate termite paradise. Like many American homes, the house was constructed on a cement slab.

Broadley tried to make the house as realistic as possible. For example, it is mostly constructed of pine boards (including the studs) because that is the wood most commonly used in U.S. home construction. Some of the finer details include windows and doors that open and close, polished hardwood floors, furniture and actual running water.

The project was a true labor of love for Broadley. “It kind of surprised me that everything I tried seemed to work — all the lighting, the running water, everything like that. I had all these ideas at first, but I wasn’t sure if they were going to work. I was surprised that it all came together, and I didn’t burn the house down with faulty electric wiring.”

BRINGING IT TO LIFE. The other critical component of this project was being able to capture quality, compelling video and photos. Fortunately, in Freytag and his assistant, Jack Leonard, the New Orleans Mosquito, Termite and Rodent Control Board has two of the best photographers/videographers in the pest control industry — both of whom have experience with macro- photography. The pair equipped the house with high-definition cameras throughout to study the termites progress from introduction to decimation.

Freytag and Leonard were tasked with capturing as much video as possible — everything from the construction of the Tiny Termite House to the house being eaten.

Having an entomology background really helps get pictures that tell the whole story, Freytag said. “If you don’t understand the biology, lifecycle and habits of your subject, it makes it a little more difficult to try to get the right pictures. With termites, you need to know what makes them tick and what doesn’t,” he said. “That helped us a lot because I think if somebody with no entomology background or no background in termites would have taken this project, I think they would have missed a lot of opportunities from not knowing what the termites were going to do.” For example, Freytag and Leonard were able to capture quality video of tunnel construction.

One of the techniques Freytag and Leonard used to capture footage was time-lapse videography. “It’s neat because you can take something that takes five hours or two days and compress it into a minute. And that’s what we did with a lot of the termite trail [footage] and when we released the termites on the house.”

At the end of every shoot, Freytag would review his best takes and send them to PPMA for use as B-roll.

A SCIENCE AND MEDIA SUCCESS. When it came time to turn the termites loose on the house, all of those involved in the project were eager to see what would happen. Would the termites behave differently in this new environment, or would they behave, well, like termites do?

“My initial thoughts were that the termites were going to cover the house in mud and not act like it was a house; they were just going to act like this was a bunch of wood,” said Freytag.

But to Freytag’s surprise they reacted to the model house as if it were a real house. “After we released the termites on top of the soil, they went into the soil and stayed for a couple days. Then after a couple of days, you’d see them trailing outside, on the foundation — which was a concrete slab.”

Freytag observed how termites found the wood components of the house and started building mud trails. “I said, ‘Wow, this is kind of neat because this is how you see them in a real house.’ Then we looked under the flooring, and they were attacking the floor joists, which is what they normally do. That was not expected because I just figured they were going to attack everywhere because it’s all wood.”

There were numerous other examples of how termites find vulnerabilities in a structure.

While the Tiny Termite House findings are of great interest to scientists, ultimately the general public’s response is what determines whether a campaign like this is successful. When it came time to launch the video, PPMA was ready with large-scale consumer media blitz. PPMA enlisted Jim Fredericks, chief entomologist for NPMA, as media spokesperson. In this role, Fredericks pointed out that “on the surface, the house appeared to be in good shape with minimal clues about the presence of termites. However, it was what was happening inside the walls and under the floors that showed the real story. This termite colony got right to work, forming mud tubes and turning this dream home into a danger zone.”

In addition to being picked up by numerous news outlets, the Tiny Termite House was a natural fit on social media, where short, captivating content rules. The video proved the perfect marriage of science and entertainment, and the best part was that the industry’s message of termite prevention and partnering with a licensed pest control professional was front and center.

The authors are managing editor of PCT and contributing writer of PCT.