FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Did you think the termite take-over in South Florida couldn’t get any worse? Think again.
Two relatively new species of the voracious buggers are worse than ever this year. Pest control company phones are ringing off the hook now that swarming season is here. And reluctant homeowners better act when telltale wings and colonies appear.
“In the last five years there has been a 30% increase in Formosan and Asian termites in southeast Florida,” says Rudolf Scheffrahn, a University of Florida entomology professor based in Davie. “It won’t get better because they have no natural enemies and only a fraction of the population is being treated by the pest control industry.”
Known as super termites, the non-native Formosan and Asian species arrive fast, in huge numbers and hit hard. A typical colony can host several million members traveling underground, burrowing up through buildings and munching through wood.
“The Formosan in particular is just a dynamite termite,” says Jenny Chapter, owner of Quality Termite and Pest Control in Davie. “The colonies are bigger, they go 24 hours a day and can forage for miles underground.”
Chapter said her company is seeing about a 15% increase in treatments for subterranean termites this year.
Marcus Moreno didn’t waste any time when he saw about 150 termites flying around his back yard one night. He called exterminators right away.
“Of course I freaked out,” says Moreno, who lives in Parkland. “The moment I saw them, that was enough for me to want to deal with them.”
And he’s lucky he did. Exterminators confirmed the bugs were the Formosan subterranean species, which are arguably the most dangerous.
Not only do they chew through wood, the bug brigade moves through the plumbing system and can disintegrate concrete – breaching every area of your home, Chapter says.
“They have a fontanellar gun, basically a hornlike projection on the top of its head, that ejects acid that penetrates concrete,” Chapter explains. “It will get to the point where the integrity of the entire structure is severely damaged.”
Moreno says exterminators did not find any colonies or significant damage inside his home, leading them to believe he caught the issue very early.
These super termites got here by hitching rides on ships and yachts, infesting new territories near the Port of Palm Beach, the New River in Fort Lauderdale and the Miami River, Scheffrahn says.
At the rate they are spreading, half of the homes and buildings from the Keys to Palm Beach County are predicted to be at risk for infestation over the next 20 years, according to a 2016 study by UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
“Formosan termites are expanding their territory every year,” says Nan-Yao Su, a UF professor of entomology also based in Davie. “Last year, they expanded inland. They were only east of University Drive. Now, we are seeing them west of Pine Island Drive in Davie. Once they get into the area, they have a hold and you can’t get rid of them.”
Scheffrahn believes it won’t take long for the Formosan and Asian termites to be just as widespread as the West Indian drywood and Florida dampwood termites that have been wreaking havoc here for centuries.
“In 50 to 100 years, South Florida will be saturated with these new species,” he says.
Chapter agrees. The Formosan termites have already overrun Dania Beach, Hallandale Beach and Hollywood homes, she says. And they have driven other species out of town, specifically the Eastern subterranean.
“We’re not seeing them at all anymore, really,” Chapter says. “The Formosans have just taken over.”
As soon as you see the signals, act quickly, Scheffrahn says. Scattered wings, bugs flying near lights, mud tubes around the house’s foundation, fecal pellets under infested wood are all signs of termites.
Termite damage does not happen overnight; it’s a gradual process, but if left untreated can cause thousands of dollars in damage. He believes the termite extermination industry makes about $50 million to $100 million annually just in South Florida, which does not include repairs homeowners may have to make.
The Formosan species are a little harder to spot, Chapter says, describing them as a “sneaky termite” that can live underneath your home and behind your walls for years before revealing themselves.
Seeing dozens of wings sprinkled across her bathroom floor is what led Sufia Fleming to call exterminators immediately.
“The wings alone were enough for me to be like ‘what the hell?’ Fleming says.
Sure enough, an exterminator confirmed a colony of drywood termites had set up camp in the attic of her West Palm Beach home.
Fleming says her house is scheduled to be tented on June 17, which is going to cost around $1,700.
Since discovering the infestation, Fleming has seen a few critters here and there throughout her house, but she says she has yet to see the entire colony. And she doesn’t want to.
“I would probably move if I saw the millions of termites that are probably up there,” she jokes.
Fleming’s thankful drywood termites invaded her house instead of the subterranean species taking over the area.
“We’re taking it one step at a time,” she says. “But, knock on wood, I don’t think it’s been that bad for us. And maybe it’s me being naive, but I’m not necessarily scared.”
When it comes to termites, identification is the key to effective treatment. Options include tenting for drywood termites, spraying insecticides or placing baits around the perimeter of buildings for subterraneans.
“When we’re in termite season, the phones start ringing like crazy,” says Ashley Duggan of Hitman Termite and Pest Control in Deerfield Beach.
Tenting costs $1,100 to $4,000 depending on the size of the building; condo buildings cost an average of $9,000 or more, according to Hitman and Enviro-Safe Protection Pest Control in Boca Raton. Treatments typically come with a one-year warranty.
But treating subterraneans with chemical pesticides – the most prevalent service offered by pest control companies – is not the best way to rid your home of the pests, Su says.
“Your house is sitting on a piece of soil, so unless you lift up your house and spray underneath and put the house back, there will always be a gap,” Su says. “So at best, you will have an incomplete barrier.”
The bait system, which Su developed in 1995, is the most effective means of extermination, he says.
“Our research has shown that if you use bait to control Formosan termites, you will kill the colony,” Su says. “Most people are still using pesticide sprays in soil around their house to treat the problem. That only temporarily chases them away from their house, so they then migrate to other homes.”
The bait system consists of placing 20 to 30 plastic tubes into the ground around the house and filling them with Sentricon bait. Termites take the poison back to their colonies, resulting in the destruction of the queen and the entire colony in one to two months. Cost averages $600 to $1,500 per treatment, depending on how many tubes must be placed around the property, according to estimates from Enviro-Safe.
Baiting is more labor intensive and has a smaller profit margin, which is why it is not as popular as spraying, Su says. But homeowners can’t afford to cut costs when it comes to exterminating these destructive termites. Nationwide estimates of damage, repair and control is more than $20 billion a year, he says.
How long does a homeowner have before the termites should be treated?
Drywood termites are slow eaters with 1,000 termites in a colony, Su says. Within 20 to 30 years, you can have up to 50 colonies if left untreated. But tenting kills everything, Su says.
“If you have a new colony of Formosan or Asian termites, you’ve got three to five years until they do substantial damage. It’s best to treat them immediately with the bait system,” Su says. That’s because colonies of these non-native termites are 10 times larger than native species, leaving exposed beams looking like shredded wheat. “With an established colony, you have 12 months before they eat through your roof trusses. Then, the weight of the roof ends up caving in.”
When it comes to subterranean termites, you really need to think about the entire community, Su says.
“Don’t be cheap and just think about yourself,” he says. “If we don’t reduce their populations using bait, eventually, they will build up and affect everyone. It will be very expensive to treat them at that point.”
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