Voracious tree termites invade South Florida

The Miami HeraldNovember 28, 2012 

The six-legged termites didn't look menacing as they crawled on a tree outside the Fishing Hall of Fame in Dania Beach. But each insect, barely the size of a grain of rice, can do more damage than any other wood-eating creature.

The termite, recently discovered in Broward, looks like a fat ant and can reproduce by the thousands in short periods of time, infest properties and trees -- and cause large economic losses.

Experts think the termites arrived from the Caribbean and Central America through ports, then landing in Dania Beach. The species was first discovered in 2001, and it was believed to have been eradicated until last year when they infested nearly four acres of the Fishing Hall of Fame off Griffin Road and Interstate 95.

"Like everything else, nature finds a way and that initial eradication effort wasn't entirely successful," said Allen Fugler, vice president of the Florida Pest Management Association. "But we are hoping that it's only in Broward. We want to contain it and come up with solutions in keeping this from spreading."

Tree termites, unlike the regular termite species, build their nests and tunnels above ground. They forage above ground like ants and they have a greater reproductive capacity. A nest can grow to be the size of a basketball within four months, containing at least 180,000 critters, more than the entire population of Fort Lauderdale.

They're tough in battle.

"The problem with this pest is that it will cause damage to people's houses, and you can't protect your house against tree termites by treating the soil like you do with regular termites," said Steven Dwinell from the Division of Agricultural Environmental Services at the Florida Department of Agriculture.

Tree termites also don't have enemies that prey on them.

Once a year, thousands of tree termites are produced with wings. They fly out of the nest to become the kings and queens of new termite colonies. During the months of April, May and June, there could be 20,000 termites flying out from one colony to form new ones.

Experts have yet to find an answer on how to get rid of them. A team of scholars, pest managers, and city and state officials met on Wednesday to discuss the strategies of eradication.

"Their one vulnerability is we can see where they are and they are easy to identify," said Barbara Thorne, a University of Maryland professor who spent two years studying tree termites for her doctorate thesis. "We need everyone to tell us where they are so that we can get it inspected carefully and get rid of the nests."

An estimated one-mile area in Dania Beach has been infested with the tree termites. In May, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services started an eradication effort.

Officials have designated insecticides and a organized a response team. They have conducted surveys and launched a public information campaign to inform residents on what to do.

"If you find an insect, get a sample and put it in a bag, or take a picture to have your exterminator look at it," said Allen Hoffer from Al Hoffer's Termite, Lawn and Pest Control, who worked in the tree termite eradication effort in 2003. "When you see them they are not like termites, they look like a wasps' nest. But when they come in the house, they do the same damage or more than the regular termites."

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