A Formidable Foe!
M any are calling it the The city’s so-called Second Battle project, dubbed Operation Full Stop.
Second Battle of New is actually the first leg of a new It also appointed USDA’s Agricul-
Orleans, the first having national campaign to rein in the tiny, tural Research Service to lead the
taken place in 1815, when General ravenous pest. Originally from East campaign, which is taking a decid-
Andrew Jackson’s troops defended Asia, the Formosan termite infests edly offensive approach to reducing
the city from the British. Today, the over a dozen southern states, costing large-area infestations of the pest.
enemy isn’t an army of redcoats, but an estimated $1 billion a year in “Recognizing that the Formosan
an exotic insect, Coptotermes property damages, repairs, and subterranean termite attacks any
formosanus—a.k.a. the Formosan control measures. number of targets from the same
subterranean termite. In 1998, the U.S. Congress took colony, defending a single building,
action—appropriating $5 a single tree, a single location
million to fund the termite- doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,
fighting since they’ll just go around it and
continue to increase their numbers.
You’ve got to shift to a large-area
approach,” says J. Patrick Jordan.
He leads ARS’ Southern Regional
Research Center (SRRC) in New
Orleans, Louisiana, headquarters for
Operation Full Stop, which officially
kicked off April 27, 1998, in the
city’s French Quarter.
Formosan termite alates, also known as swarmers, captured on a sticky trap used to
monitor populations. Photo by Scott Bauer. (K8200-9)
4 Agricultural Research/October 1998 6
A national campaign is being launched against this devastating insect.
To help wage a full-scale assault ganisms that naturally attack the For- and other woody plants. According to
on the pest, ARS has formed a coali- mosan termite. termite control board director Ed
tion of public and private groups that According to Jordan, nothing short Bordes, about 30 percent of the city’s
includes the New Orleans Mosquito of total war will curb the pest’s num- live oaks and cypress trees are now
and Termite Control Board, the bers and spread. “You’ve got to go infested.
Audubon Institute, USDA’s Forest after the whole nine yards, if you in- Even more frightening, this six-
Service, Louisiana State University’s tend to win,” he says. “This is a ma- legged sneak is legendary for pene-
(LSU) Agricultural Center, Texas jor change in philosophy from previ- trating cement, brick, plastic, and
A&M University, and the Universi- ous attempts to stop these termites.” other obstacles to get to food or water
ties of Florida and Hawaii. sources. A veteran of the Formosan
Rather than rely on chemicals as Eyewitness Accounts termite war, Bordes has seen it all.
the sole defense, the project’s scien- “We’ve seen trees fall on trucks;
Those are welcome words to June
tists are taking the offensive with an we’ve seen trees fall on buildings—
Cahn, a businesswoman who lives in
integrated pest management ap- all infested with Formosan termites,”
the French Quarter—ground zero for
proach. One avenue of attack will be- says Bordes. “They’ll eat the seals
Operation Full Stop. Like other resi-
gin in the laboratory as researchers out of high-pressure water lines to
dents, Cahn’s all too familiar with the
look for ways to exploit weaknesses get to the moisture inside.”
pest’s costly mischief. Recently, her
in the pest’s biology, growth, chemi-
son James removed a beach-ball-
cal communication, and Testing the Termite’s
behavior. SCOTT BAUER (K8212-2) Mettle
They’ll also take the
In May, Bordes
fight to the streets, so to
joined a team of ARS
speak, by setting out com-
and university scientists
mercial bait products
led by LSU Agricultural
around buildings and in
parks. The baits work by
Dennis Ring to start a
luring foraging termites to
large-scale pilot study
bite off food laced with an
on a 15-block area of the
insect growth regulator
like hexaflumuron, which
With the help of resi-
prevents the pest from
dents and building man-
agers, the scientists are
Because the bait’s in-
evaluating use of two
gredients don’t kill right
different baiting sys-
away, the termite has time
tems—one from Dow
Lax (left) and Patrick Jordan, director of ARS’
to carry the poisons back Microbiologist AlanResearch Center, examine sticky traps covered with
Southern Regional Agrosciences and the
to the colony to share with alates, the winged stage of the Formosan subterranean termite.
other from FMC Corp.
They’re also testing
In Gainesville, Florida,
Premise 75, a nonrepel-
ARS scientists are building
sized nest from the walls of his home, lent soil termiticide from Bayer Corp.
computer-generated, geographic in-
a short walk from the famed French The scientists are also installing
formation system (GIS) maps. These
Market. monitoring stations. These devices
will display numerous layers of in-
“One of the things I’ve noticed contain two thin pieces of wood with-
formation, such as street and building
about these termites is you don’t nec- in a plastic tube that can be inserted
locations, geological formations,
essarily know what they’re doing, in holes drilled into pavement or dug
vegetation, and high-moisture areas.
where they’re showing themselves,” into the ground. Later, they retract
The maps will help authorities track
says Cahn. “And by the time you find the wood to check termite activity.
progress of various control strategies.
out, your structure can be turned to Smaller, site-specific projects led
ARS researchers also plan travel
powder.” by LSU Agricultural Center research-
to several East Asian countries in
In addition to wooden structures, ers Gregg Henderson and Frank Guil-
hopes of identifying beneficial or-
the pest devours live deciduous trees lot are under way at 15 schools
Agricultural Research/October 1998 5
plagued by the termite in Orleans, Eventually, it became obvious this human health led to the loss of chlor-
Jefferson, and St. Bernard Parishes. was no native. Formosan termite col- dane, exacerbating the Formosan ter-
Another is planned for infested trees onies dwarf those of native species, mite problem. Other compounds
in Louis Armstrong Park. Bordes will covering far more terrain and num- used since then have lacked the same
oversee studies conducted at the 30- bering many times more members. staying power.
acre park located just north of the Although it took time for it to es- The termite, however, has plenty
French Quarter. tablish itself and spread, the Formo- of staying power. In fact, it is now so
In these trials, scientists will eval- san termite has done so with startling well established and widespread, ex-
uate and compare the performance of success. Today, it infests Alabama, perts say eradication is not a likely
individual control tactics in an isolat- Arizona, Arkansas, California, Flor- scenario.
ed setting, such as treating wood with ida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, “One of our initial goals is to
borate and constructing physical bar- New Mexico, North and South Caro- eliminate colonies and the damage
riers of fine-particle sand or stainless- lina, Texas, and Virginia. Hawaii is a they cause within defined treatment
steel mesh. They’ll also examine SCOTT BAUER (K8213-10) areas,” says Edgar G. King, associate
construction practices that could min- director for ARS’ Mid South re-
imize the ease with which termites search area, headquartered at Stone-
gain access to a home via the soil. ville, Mississippi.
“We’re evaluating the best tech-
An Unwelcome Stowaway nologies available now and assem-
bling them into a package the pest
Most experts believe the Formosan
control industry can use,” says King.
termite invaded the United States half
Thus armed, public or private pest
a century ago.
control operators could then begin
“The theory is that it infested
the task of attacking termites that be-
crates, pallets, and other packing ma-
devil a particular city or state.
terial aboard ships carrying supplies
and troops home from the Pacific
Taking a Stand
Theater at the close of World War
II,” says microbiologist Alan R. Lax. A chief reason for Operation Full
He leads the SRRC’s recently formed Stop’s starting with New Orleans is
Formosan Subterranean Termite Re- that the city has fallen prey to one of
search Unit. the largest and most destructive For-
Those supply ships offloaded their mosan termite infestations.
cargoes in the coastal cities of Gal- “We’re estimating that we’re los-
veston and Houston, Texas; Lake Some remnants of a nest are visible in this
ing about $300 million a year in the
Charles and New Orleans, Louisiana; cavity, which was hollowed out by metropolitan area to termite damage
and Charleston, South Carolina. Inev- Formosan subterranean termites while the and control costs,” says Bordes.
itably, the used crates and pallets tree was still alive. Microbiologist Alan Lax A humid, near-tropical climate
checks the extent of damage.
ended up in landfills, often buried in contributes to the problem. Another
soil—an ideal environment for these factor is the architectural character of
subterranean termites, says Lax. the city’s French Quarter. Many of
Still, it wasn’t until the mid-1960s the buildings there are historic land-
separate story: That state’s infesta-
that scientists discovered the unwel- marks with foundations supported by
tions date back far earlier.
come stowaway at these points of en- woodwork dating back to the 1700s
For years, pest control operators
try. Why the 20-year delay? in some cases.
fought a delaying action with chlor-
“The Formosan termite was un- Consider, too, the row-style
dane, an insecticide thought to re-
known in the States before that time, homes. Their shared walls give
main potent in soils for up to 25
and populations were low,” explains foraging termites easy access from
years—one trait that proved the
Lax. “The pest’s winged stage also one building to the next. This ham-
resembles a commonly occurring pers pest control efforts to treat or
In 1988, concerns over the chemi-
drywood termite, which may have fumigate a single client’s home or
cal’s risk to both the environment and
created some confusion.” building.
6 Agricultural Research/October 1998 6
SCOTT BAUER (K8085-8)
“Formosan termites have definite-
ly changed the way pest control oper-
ators do their business,” says Edward
Martin, who is with Terminix, Inc.,
of New Orleans.
“They are extremely strong survi-
vors,” says Martin of the pest. “So
even if they are cut off from the
ground—if you’ve trapped hundreds
of thousands of termites in the build-
ing—there’s a good probability they
will find some minuscule moisture
source and build a nest right in the
Detection, he adds, is the key. “I
think that since we’ve come in with
the bait systems—which seem to be
working very well—we have the
ability to reduce these colonies. But
Formosan subterranean termites show no respect for historic Jackson Square if we can’t find them, we can’t bait
(foreground), St. Louis Cathedral, or the neighboring Cabildo at left, where the Louisiana them.”
Purchase transfer ceremony took place in 1803. That’s something Operation Full
Stop scientists aim to remedy. They
SCOTT BAUER (K8204-7) SCOTT BAUER (K8212-18) are establishing collaborative ties
with National Aeronautics and Space
Administration and U.S. Department
of Defense researchers to devise
sensing techniques to find termites
hiding within walls and other hard-
The standard approach is to visual-
ly inspect a structure. With help from
the defense or space industry, tomor-
row’s tools of detection might instead
rely on electrical current, acoustic
sound, infrared light waves, or some
other as yet untapped technology.
Equipped with such early warning
systems, “we could apply an offen-
sive strategy to eliminate the invad-
ing termites before they do substan-
tial damage,” says Lax.
Changing the Enemy’s Behavior
Formosan subterranean termites are Formosan subterranean termites can turn
SRRC scientists are also working
feeding on Sudan-red-stained filter paper. solid beams into shredded-wheat-like closely with LSU entomologist
Tracking the termites stained with this dye wood. Entomologist Ed Freytag (left) and Henderson and colleagues to deci-
allows researchers to estimate their microbiologist Alan Lax inspect damage to pher the pest’s chemical communica-
foraging range and population numbers. the floor of a building in the French
tion. They hope to synthesize chemi-
cal come-hither signals that the
Agricultural Research/October 1998 7
SCOTT BAUER (K8217-2)
termites use to attract fellow termites it avoids. The bad-tasting plants may
to food sources and other locations. contain signaling chemicals that deter
These signaling chemicals could be the termite from feeding and could
used to make toxic baits even more become part of new, biologically
irresistible—and deadly. The univer- based pesticides.
sity group has also shown that • Roger Gold, a Texas A&M
aspartic acid, a natural chemical in University professor at College
sugarcane, whets the Formosan Station, is studying termite biology,
termite’s appetite. reproduction, and foraging behaviors.
“A large part of our research is to Of chief interest: the symbiotic
look for ways to modify termite relationship between the termite and
behavior,” says Henderson. “Ter- protozoa that reside in its hind gut.
mites orient to chemicals. So we There, the microbes supply their
want to find the chemicals they are insect host with enzymes for digest-
using and then try to use them against ing cellulose. Gold envisions a form
the pests, both as feeding stimulants of microbial sabotage in which
and attractants.” tricking the termite to ingest low
Similar work is under way at the doses of certain chemicals would kill
University of Florida in Gainesville. its protozoan partners. Starving the Microbiologist Alan Lax examines carton
There, Operation Full Stop collabora- pest by this method, Gold notes, “is nest material on insulation and framing
tor Nan-Yao Su is studying the quite a few years off.” damaged by the Formosan subterranean
termite’s behavior and colony • Janine Powell works with the termite.
dynamics. Like ants, termites are ARS Biological Control and Mass
social insects with a caste system that Rearing Research Unit at Mississippi
includes workers, soldiers, and alates, State and the ARS Quarantine Facili- SCOTT BAUER (K8202-6)
the winged forms that become the ty at Stoneville. Powell’s charge is to
kings and queens. Queens can lay coordinate research to find, collect,
2,000 to 3,000 eggs a day. and import the Formosan termite’s
Exploiting the Formosan termite’s natural enemies—whether they are
nutritional needs is one focus of the predatory insects, parasites, or fungi
new SRRC research unit. that infect and kill the pest. If such
“We anticipate making improve- organisms exist, scientists will return
ments in the baits, composing them with specimens for study under
out of food sources that are essential quarantine conditions at the Missis-
for termite development—the right sippi labs. If these natural enemies
ratio of carbohydrates, amino acids, pass muster on a rigid environmental
fatty acids, mineral salts, and vita- safety checklist, scientists would
mins,” says Lax. “We want to make place them on active duty in termite-
formulations that are absolutely infested regions of the United States.
irresistible to Formosan termites, so • Entomologist Rick Brenner at
they’ll have no choice but to take the ARS’ Center for Medical, Agricultur-
bait—and the toxin that goes along al, and Veterinary Entomology at
with it.” Gainesville is leading research to
Elsewhere, collaborating scientists harness the GIS maps, along with
are pursuing other avenues of attack. Global Positioning System technolo-
They include: gy. Scientists will use these high-tech New Orleans Mosquito and Termite
Control Board entomologist Ed Freytag
• Ken Grace, a University of tools to monitor the termite’s spread, checks for Formosan termite infestation of
Hawaii entomologist, is working to colony growth, foraging patterns, and living trees in New Orleans’ Jackson
identify the termite’s favorite native proximity to moisture sources. By Square.
species of trees and plants and those illustrating areas of interest, the GIS
8 Agricultural Research/October 1998 6
SCOTT BAUER (K8208-6)
maps will help scientists identify
termite hotspots where baits or other
controls would be most effective.
The SRRC is both research
institution and the hub around which
Operation Full Stop scientists coordi-
nate their studies and communicate
findings. The center also works
closely with New Orleans’ Audubon
Institute, which fills a vital educa-
tional role in enlisting public support
and participation on the project. In
late 1999, the center plans to host an
international conference to report on
the campaign’s progress, as well as to
highlight research results from
around the world.
With New Orleans as the proving
ground, Operation Full Stop will
eventually expand to other states or
The French Quarter in New Orleans harbors one of the heaviest Formosan subterranean
termite infestations in the country. Here, a tamper-proof metal cap in the street marks the cities under siege by the Formosan
location of a monitoring/baiting station in an area that is already under treatment. subterranean termite. If unchecked,
scientists fear the pest will extend its
range, perhaps along the coastal
SCOTT BAUER (K8198-17) SCOTT BAUER (K8196-14)
states of the North or West.
In this sense, Operation Full Stop
is a good national insurance policy.
In the words of French Quarter
resident June Cahn, “You would do
very well in settling the question
down here before it gets to you.”—
By Jan Suszkiw, ARS.
J. Patrick Jordan and Alan R. Lax
are at the USDA-ARS Southern
Regional Research Center, 1100
Robert E. Lee Blvd., P.O. Box 19687,
New Orleans, LA 70179; fax (504)
[Jordan] phone (504) 286-4212, e-
[Lax] phone (504) 286-4472, e-
For termite information on the
WWW, visit http://www.ars.usda.gov/
A termite monitoring/baiting station is Wood blocks placed in this monitoring/ Contact ARS Information Staff
being installed in a grassy area. The station baiting station are checked at regular
is manufactured by Dow Agrosciences. intervals for signs of termite activity. If any writer Jan Suszkiw about other
is found, poisoned baits are placed inside. scientists mentioned in this article by
Foraging workers consume and spread the phone at (301) 504-1630, fax (301)
poison throughout their colony. 504-1641, e-mail jsuszkiw@
Agricultural Research/October 1998 9