Published on 04/21/99

Don't Panic When Termites Swarm, Says UGA Scientist

Swarming termites aren't a signal to be frantic, says a University of Georgia scientist. It's a time to make deliberate, careful termite control decisions.

Scott Bauer, USDA, contact the USDA photo unit for high-res images
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Termite alaltes, also known as swarmers

"If you see a swarm in your house, don't panic," said Brian Forschler, an entomologist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Most termites native to Georgia will be swarming from now until early June, he said. They swarm when a percentage of the termites within a population become adults and fly away to start a new colony.

Controlling termites

"Most termite damage is not sudden and catastrophic," Forschler said. "Talk to several pest control firms. Weigh the control options, and look at price and contracts."

Termite control, he said, is more art than science.

"Despite the best intentions, termite damage can still occur," he said. "Read your contract carefully. Be sure of what kind of warranty is offered. And try to lock in a renewal rate for future years."

Termite fighting tactics

Scott Bauer, USDA, contact the USDA photo unit for high-res imagesTermites
DEFENDING THE NEST Damage to a nest of formosan subterranean termites brings hoards of workers and soldiers scrambling to repair the hole. Termites shown are four times actual size.

Many pest control companies are pushing termite baits as a new, easy way to kill termites. But they're not a silver bullet, Forschler said.

"There are no silver bullets when it comes to termite control," he said.

Forschler has tested termite control tactics, including the bait systems, in his labs. From what he's seen, he's not comfortable with relying solely on the popular baits or any other single control method.

He tells homeowners to ask their pest control operator to use a combination of methods.

Use all the tools available

"Termite control professionals have a variety of tools in their toolbox," he said. There are wood treatments, soil treatments, baits and moisture control. The best control involves all four."

Forschler said companies began marketing the new termite baits several years ago, and the pest control industry has quickly adopted this new technology.

"Termite baiting tactics are less time-consuming to install, compared to conventional soil treatments," Forschler said. "And they're often less intrusive to the homeowner."

The termite baits appeal to homeowners, too, because they're promoted as being environmentally friendly, he said

Safety is important

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is responsible for pesticide registration, is playing catch-up with the new technology, he said.

The EPA has ruled the baits environmentally safe. The agency hasn't ruled on how well they work.

"By the end of this year they will issue a standard for efficacy testing of termite baits which will be required by all termite bait registrants," Forschler said. "The currently registered termite baits will have to meet this new standard of efficacy to keep their current registrations."

Termite society

Scott Bauer, USDA, contact the USDA photo unit for high-res images
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MAKING A MEAL OF PAPER Formosan subterranean termites are shown feeding on sudan-red stained filter paper.

The product literature provided with some termite baits, he said, contains misleading information on termite biology. And he should know. Forschler has been studying termites in Georgia for the past eight years.

"The complex social structure of termites and their hidden lifestyle make them hard to study," he said. "Yet, every year, termite researchers around the country are making new discoveries concerning termites."

Forschler said the way a home is built may contribute to termite problems.

"A hundred years ago, houses were built off the ground so the wood was dry, and builders used wood termites don't like to eat," he said. "In the '50s, chemicals were trusted so much that home builders didn't worry about building in ways that protect the house from termites."

That trend, he said, has gotten worse. "Houses today are built of materials that make great termite food. And they're often built in ways that invite termites," he said.

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