[Invasive Species] The Tree Termite Threat

Features - Termite Control

PMPs, researchers and state and federal regulators are coming together in southern Florida to squash a threatening invasive termite that could have ramifications across the country.

March 26, 2013

Nasutitermes corniger. (Photo: Ken Walker, Pest and Diseases Image Library)

In the first half of 2011, the IGFA Fishing Hall of Fame and Museum in Dania Beach, Fla., came down with a pest problem. A line of what looked to be ants was trailing in from a nearby patch of woods, so they called Al Hoffer’s Termite, Lawn and Pest, the establishment’s pest control provider.

“One of my people went out there, and he said, ‘They don’t look like ants, they look like termites,’” said Al Hoffer, the firm’s owner. “And I said, ‘Termites don’t do that.’”

The termite in question was the invasive Nasutitermes corniger, or as it has become colloquially known, the “tree termite,” named such for its arboreal nature and tendency to build nests in trees — though Allen Fugler, executive vice president of the Florida Pest Management Association, warns that this is something of a misnomer. “They’ll eat the nonliving parts of trees, of course, but they’ll also eat any structural wood — they’ll eat virtually anything with cellulose.”

The tree termite is an invasive species native to the Caribbean that was initially discovered in Broward County, Florida in 2001. Officials thought the tree termite was eradicated in 2003, but the re-discovery of the pest in 2011 proved that this was not the case. Now, an initiative in southern Florida is gaining steam to stop the pest from spreading to other parts of the country — Fugler said that without a plan to stop this invasive pest, it could become an extremely costly and destructive problem with the potential to spread throughout the United States.

The Tree Termite. The tree termite is especially troublesome for a number of reasons. The species’ nests are often built in plain sight, and can often be mistaken for wasps’ nests, according to Fugler. The termites’ voracious and varied appetite is further troublesome considering that the rate of reproduction is very high among the species — one nest can be home to up to 12 reproductives, or queens, each producing eggs. “Because of that, they can swarm at a high rate, forage at a high rate and produce colonies at a high rate,” Fugler said.

Tree termites can build nests in trees, which can be mistaken for wasps’ nests. (Photo: Florida Pest Management Association)

The tree termites build dark brown foraging tunnels and can build their nests in a variety of places, including its namesake, as well as inside structures in wall voids, boats or in furniture. The nests even can be freestanding on the ground, according to Fugler.

“They’re very open to being outside,” said Hoffer, adding that subterranean and drywood termites tend to “run and hide” if a technician breaks open a nest to inspect. The tree termite, however, went ahead and crawled up Hoffer’s screwdriver when he had the opportunity to inspect a nest, he said.

Another unusual feature, a feature that makes the termite particularly difficult to control, is that many times the tree termite nest will go unnoticed until it is very large — and by that time, they’re spreading alates, according to Fugler.

With all this in mind, it seems only a matter of time before the tree termite eventually spreads — Dania Beach is near Interstate 95, the Fort Lauderdale International Airport, Port Everglades and other channels that could allow it to spread. The ecosystem of the nearby Everglades could be threatened as well if the termites make their way there, Fugler said. “We have enough problems with pythons and boa constrictors,” he added.

Thus, the need to act on this problem is apparent, and Fugler said it would require a concentrated, collaborative effort from the Florida Pest Management Association, along with state and federal regulators to help eradicate the pest. The idea was considered by a number of pest management experts during a symposium held by FPMA in November 2012, and now a plan is coming together.

Eradication. Fugler said that care must be taken when using the word “eradication.”

“Eradication means no more pests,” Fugler said. “Management and control are terms used frequently, because eradication is something difficult to determine.”

Indeed, if the effort is successful, it would be the first-ever successful eradication of a social insect in the United States, Fugler said. “We’re seeking and developing a public and private partnership with PMPs in the area.”

The project is called the Florida Invasive Termite Initiative, or FITI (Fugler said the name may be subject to change), and the groundwork is carefully being laid for the initiative to be a success. No hard specifics are in place quite yet, but an outline is coming together.

FITI efforts would include a private and public partnership between the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS), as well as independent pest management firms to educate the public, catalog infestations, and treat and remove identified colonies. Fugler said the initiative will seek state and matching federal funding. The initiative could consist of an advisory board whose members are appointed by the Commissioner of Agriculture, a combination of PMPs, researchers, extension personnel, citizens and local officials; it would create treatment protocols and coordinating treatment efforts; and subcommittees could address technical issues, community outreach, media relations and more.

Treatment. The treatment protocol for the tree termites would differ from typical termite treatments in order to coincide with the eradication effort.

One possible treatment protocol would call for the tree termite nest to be completely removed from the spot where it was found and then incinerated. This would be combined with spraying, using a product with a flexible label, Fugler said.

A nest located near the ground. The species can build nests in a variety of locations (Photo: Florida Dept. of Agriculture and Consumer Services)

Fugler added that a few termiticides are being considered for use in the treatment protocol — the product in question would need to allow for treatment of trees and soil in accordance with its label directions. “Both Syngenta and BASF were sponsors of our symposium in November, and both have products that could be used in the possible protocols,” he said.

The effort will be a true private/public partnership, a precedent for which was set by the Formosan Termite Task Force, created in 2000 by the Louisiana Pest Management Association and the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, to stem the spread of the Formosan termite, Fugler said. He added that FPMA will be making a concentrated effort at NPMA Legislative Day in May. “We’ll be asking our delegation to support funding for this initiative, and obviously it’s focused on a very narrow single termite with a very narrow distribution,” he said. “It’s a good ask, to spend pennies now to avoid spending dollars later. We need to keep this from becoming what could be within a generation the next Formosan termite.”


The author is associate editor with PCT magazine. Reach him via email at bdelaney@giemedia.com.