Published on 02/02/06

Termite baths may become deadly

By Sharon Omahen
University of Georgia

Termites don't worry about their own hygiene. But they are fanatical about the cleanliness of fellow termites. This finding could lead to another way of stopping these house-munching menaces, says a University of Georgia specialist.

"Termites don't clean themselves. They rely on each other and spend a lot of time cleaning one another," said Brian Forschler, an entomologist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Forschler and his graduate students recently uncovered this odd behavior. He thinks it could be a step to a new termite control that uses a mythical method of trickery.

Using termite habits against them

He envisions the "Trojan Termite."

The idea is based on a story from the Trojan War. The Greeks gave the Trojans a giant wooden horse as a peace offering, the Trojan Horse. The Trojans happily accepted. They drug the gift inside their fortified city of Troy. But Greek soldiers were hiding inside its hollow belly. They crawled out and opened the city gates. The rest of the Greek army stormed in and captured the city.

Forschler is working on control tactics using this new information.

"In this approach," he said, "we want the one they will lick off one another."

Forschler has spent the past 15 years studying termite biology to find better methods of controlling them.

Knowing genetics helps, too

Another tool in the battle against termites is genetics.

"We need to find out which ones are related to one another to determine the makeup of a colony," he said.

A simple way to do this is to put a few termites together in a petri dish. "If they fight," he said, "they are from different groups, and they aren't related."

Forschler also uses DNA technology to determine the maternal lineage of termites.

Like any human, a termite has an exact copy of its mother's mitochondrial DNA.

"With DNA, we do a 'Who's your Mama?' type test," he said.

These DNA tests have led Forschler to shy away from using the word colony when he refers to termites.

Close-knit families

"When it comes to termites, there's not a nice neat box where there's a king and queen and they all live together and do termite things," he said.

For the most part, termites prefer to hang out with their siblings. But they will occasionally let other unrelated termites into their society.

"It's just like when we get married and we bring new people into our family," he said.

For now, he continues studying the tiny destroyers in the hopes of finding new, more effective ways of controlling them.

"We have to keep telling ourselves that we're way smarter than they are," he said. "I don't think it will ever be so simple that homeowners can go out and buy something and treat for termites on their own."

Americans spend more than $1 billion each year to repair termite damage and hire control companies to treat infested structures.

Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.