By Brad Harbison and Jodi Dorsch
Termite control is a staple in the pest management industry, but it also is one of the most challenging and evolving services. There is an art (“real-world” experience) and a science (understanding termite biology, behavior and control methods) to termite management. PCT thought it was a good time to check in with leading university researchers to discuss current-day termite issues and have them make a few predictions for the years ahead.
Termite researchers interviewed for the following question and answer session include: Dr. Gary Bennett, Purdue University; Dr. Brian Forschler, University of Georgia; Dr. Roger Gold, Texas A&M University (retired); Dr. Gregg Henderson, Louisiana State University; Dr. Nan-Yao Su, University of Florida; Dr. Barbara L. Thorne, University of Maryland; Dr. Michael Merchant, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service; Dr. Paul Baker, University of Arizona; Mark Janowiecki, Texas A&M University; Dr. Faith Oi, University of Florida; Dr. Ed Vargo, Texas A&M University; Dr. Mike Rust, University of California, Riverside (retired); and Dr. Michael Waldvogel, North Carolina State University.
PCT: What is the number one question you’d like to have answered about termites?
Gregg Henderson: Why can some subterranean species reach populations of over 10,000,000 while others max out at 250,000?
Brian Forschler: How do subterranean termites construct and maintain their network of underground tunnels/galleries?
Michael Merchant: Has the termite business truly declined in our area (Texas) over the past 20 years, and can any or all of the drop off (if real) be attributed to the introduction of fipronil and other non-repellent termiticides?
Mike Rust: One of the most interesting aspects of termite biology that still eludes us is the physiological mechanisms by which queen termites regulate the structure of the colony. We assume that semiochemicals play an important role in this regulation, but the nature of these compounds and how they impact her remain unknown.
Mark Janowiecki: Of the three most common species of Reticulitermes in the eastern U.S. (R. flavipes, R. virginicus and R. hageni), why is only R. flavipes common in urban settings attacking houses?
PCT: What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned about termites and termite control from working in the field with pest management professionals?
Michael Waldvogel: From my experience, successful termite control is not as much about the chemical as it is about a skilled PMP that sizes up the problem and THEN decides how best to treat it.
Barbara Thorne: A wonderful lesson has been that as much as I respect termites for their remarkable capabilities to infest in unexpected and insidious ways, I will always bank on treatment success by observant, curious, experienced PMPs. Situations and circumstances may be challenging, but wise, persistent professionals enjoy the problem solving, devise creative strategies and ultimately triumph over termites!
Brian Forschler: Any seasoned, experienced termite inspector can name the two to three places they are likely to find termites in a building once they know the foundation elements of that structure. Of course, exceptions rule the roost because those are the jobs that are memorable, but overall any good termite tech/inspector already knows (subconsciously) that subterranean termites will follow structures in the soil. Therefore, they appear in predictable locations in structures. Our work with a demonstration project here on campus — where we have done all the termite jobs on the 400 buildings on 700+ acres in our main campus since 2000 — has data that shows 94 percent of infestations enter buildings from expansion joints/cracks in slabs or cracks in stone/brick foundations. That information lends strong support to what industry practitioners already know.
PCT: What will the headline be for PCT’s Annual Termite Control Issue in 2030? Why?
Nan-Yao Su: “Remote management of termites. It’s here” — We should be able to monitor termite activity remotely and send out technicians on an as-needed basis.
Gary Bennett: “Are termites really back?” — I’m not sure it will take that long for termite work to rebound in the industry; I hear some PMPs saying their termite work is starting to come back. Developing technologies may keep my headline from becoming a reality!
Mike Rust: “Have we found an IPM model for termites?” — One of the major obstacles remaining in control of both drywood and subterranean termites is finding IPM practices that are cost effective, adaptable to PMP business models and competitive with inexpensive pesticide applications worldwide. I think termite baits are an example of this problem. They can be extremely effective, but are costly compared with conventional soil chemical treatments, requiring additional training and more qualified technicians. By 2030, I think we will have married the technology and science to PMP business models, resulting in more successful and adoptable IPM programs worldwide.
Barbara Thorne: “Invasive conehead termites eradicated from the U.S.” — 2030 is about the earliest — assuming best-case progress and circumstances — that the conehead program could announce eradication of the exotic pest species.
Faith Oi: “Termites always win!” — They have an amazing organizational structure that enables them to find ways around what we do in terms of management. We have some excellent termite control products, but often despite our best efforts, they overcome us.
PCT: Why do termite swarms ebb and flow so much? One year there are many swarms, other years there are very few.
Gregg Henderson: Populations depend on good food, water and a stable habitat that is often climate dependent. When all goes well, more food comes into the colony and more energy can be put into an otherwise colony-draining effort: alate production. That is the flow, when things go wrong, which includes a good termite treatment, the colony ebbs at best.
Paul Baker: I believe that food and moisture drive the biological cycle and thus they need both. One year there are many swarms, other years there are very few. Biological events (moisture and food) will always cycle as long as the weather patterns are constantly changing.
Ed Vargo: I am not convinced it does ebb and flow as much as some people believe. Mating flights are driven by the weather, both in terms of the production of new swarmers within colonies and in terms of when the swarmers fly. So, if there is significant fluctuation from year to year, I suspect it is weather related. In years when spring is relatively dry and then there is a large rain event after the swarmers have matured, you will see large synchronous mating flights. If rain events are more spread out, then I suspect swarms will be smaller and spread out over a longer period of time, making them less conspicuous. What we need are long-term studies of swarming in both urban and undisturbed habitats to determine whether there are fluctuations in swarm intensity, and if so, whether such fluctuations are due to weather patterns (which should show the same response in urban and undisturbed areas) or due to something unique to urban habitats, such as the use of certain insecticides.
PCT: What is the most serious problem we will face with termite management in the next few years?
Roger Gold: Overextension of warranties/guarantees for promises of termite control for over five to six years. There are too many variables to be considered/overlooked that will be very expensive to correct after the fact. Termite population management will always be labor-intensive, and will be dependent on correct identification of the problem, addressing conducive conditions, and proper application/implementation of the science of integrated management.
The authors are managing editor and editor, respectively, of PCT magazine.