Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
After we found the frass, my husband bought some Termout and squirted it into some of the holes in the wood. The pellets stopped appearing. But last fall we saw our first inhouse swarmers.
- Some primal termite knocked on wood
- And tasted it, and found it good,
- And that is why your Cousin May
- Fell through the parlour floor today
- — Ogden Nash
Although no Formosan termite was known to be established in San Diego, word of its fearsome reputation had reached David Kellum.
If my ears were sensitive enough, I could hear the termites eating into the wooden skeleton of my bedroom, The collective action of their tiny jaws, growing and chewing makes a noise that electronic sensors can discern. The DowElanco chemical company which manufactures the most popular poison for killing termites, has connected such sensors up to small computers that can assess the size of an infestation by sound alone. My ears are inadequate to do this, but I know the termites are there and sometimes I try to imagine what they would sound like if I could hear them.
Dr. Mike Rust checking for Formosan termites in La Mesa. “People [in San Diego] often see termites after a rainfall. They’ll see plants and wood and sticks all covered with little mud tubes."
I know how they got in. Eleven years ago my husband and I remodeled our Pacific Beach house, adding a two story wing that now contains three bedrooms two on the ground floor and a master bedroom upstairs. The carpenters were farming this addition in September of 1986 when someone noticed the presence of termites with wings. My husband called La Jolla pest controller whom we had consulted in the past, but he recommended against fumigation pointing out that drywood termites swarm in the early fall and more of them were apt to land upon the exposed framework. This pest controller advised us to wait and see what developed, if anything.
Knowing what I do now about termites, I can reconstruct the sequence of events that unfolded. Drywood termites don't fly well so the ones that settled in my house couldn't have come far—maybe from a colony in the wooden fence at the back of our property or in one of our neighbor’s homes. At same point a chemical signal transmitted by the queen of that colony had caused sexually immature individuals within her community to grow wings , A few hundred if these "alates" roughly half of them male and half female , had spilled out of a hole in the word they were inhabiting , Then they had dispersed on a terrifying journey.
San Diego's drywood termites don’t face the predacious anteaters, pangolins, chimpanzees and even hungry humans found in some places, but a host of sharp eyed birds lizards bats spiders ants and other insects finds them delectable, and it has been estimated that no more than 2 percent of flying termites survive their hours of exposure. The first act of the ones that landed on the framing of my bedroom would have been to break off their wings. Biologist Paul Harvey essay on the life has story of the dry wood termite published in 1934, explains how this is done. "Quickly spreading and lowering the wings until their tips touch the wood, [the termite] pivots first one way and then another thus bringing pressure to hear on the wings the basal sutures."
Harvey continues that once wingless the insects run “rapidly hither and thither until an individual of the opposite sex is encountered, whereupon both stop abruptly and stand with head very close together, moving their anemia back and forth continuously over one another’s heads. The king makes advances toward the queen, the queen striking at the king with her head. After four or five such overtures, each or which is followed by a pause during which the termites stand taking each other with their anthelia fanning slowly the king is accepted or rejected. If he is rejected the queen turns and runs quickly away and the king goes in the opposite direction. If however, the king is accepted, the queen turns quickly and speeds away, with the king in close pursuit.” Throughout their lives, the two will rarely separate.
One having chosen each other, my king and queen termites would have begun working together to tunnel into the soft Douglas fir in my nascent bedroom. When their hole was between a third and a half-inch deep, they would have scaled themselves within it, never again to see daylight. Then they would have worked to excavate a nesting chamber, eating the wood and digesting it with the aid of protozoa living in their guts. The king and queen at some point would have interrupted their labors to copulate, the first act of a sexual intercourse that may developing, so she wouldn’t have laid her first batch of eggs for another six or seven weeks.
She may have land only one or two eggs at first, and these would have required regular cleaning and turning, tasks that half months, the eggs would have yielded nymphs that looked like miniature versions of their royal parents. The jaws of the nymphs would have been too weak to chew wood, so the king and queen would have led them with a clear fluid that they regurgitated in come the nymphs also would have begun slurping up a thin soupy mush of partly digested intestinal contents, delivered of the royal muses. This anal feeding supplies the young termites with the product they need in their guts to digest wood on their own; they do not born with the crucial helpers. As more eggs were laid and batched, the nymphs would have taken up the burden of caring for the young, treeing the queen to devote her-self to egg production. According to Harvey, my colony after two years probably included the queen and king, a dozen or more nymphs, and one soldier dedicated to guarding the nest. The queen’s abdomen would have become broader and longer by then, and her egg laying would have assumed a pattern: from 1 to 12 eggs each day for seven to ten days, then a break of a month or more, then resuming the laying, with the pattern continuing from late spring to late-fall. Harvey concluded that the queen’s maximum egg-laying capacity is reached when she’s 10 to 12 years old. If he is right, then the queen termite living in my bedroom wall is probably just now reaching her prime.
Of course, we’ve never seen her. Two or three years ago we did notice some gritty material beneath one of the exposed ceiling beams. This was frass—the common term for the dry pellets of undigested food excreted (from the termite’s ass). Had we examined the fecal pellets under a microscope, we would have seen a hexagonal configuration created by a set of six plates around the western drywood termite’s anus. Under a microscope, the sculpting makes the pellets look like seeds. But you don’t need magnification to recognize the stuff. Light brown in color, it has an even, granular texture that termite inspectors can spot from ten feet away. It’s the certain giveaway that Western drywood termites are active.
After we found the frass, my husband bought some over-the-counter insecticide called Termout and squirted it into some of the holes in the wood. The pellets stopped appearing. That was a good two years ago. But last fall we saw our first inhouse swarmers, a couple of dozen altogether (though we noticed them a few at a time and never could tell just where they were coming from).
If your only experience with termites was with one of these winged Western drywoods, you would wonder how termites ever came to be known as “white ants.” The wings, more than a third of an inch long, are the taupe color of women’s nylons, and the alates’ most dramatic feature. The creatures bearing those wings are brown with reddish heads, overall about the size of a grain of uncooked rice.
The sexually immature nymphs from which they develop do have a milky pallor and a shape that could be interpreted as antlike. Moreover, termites and ants, along with many wasps and bees, belong to the remarkable group of beings known as eusocial insects. Such insects work together to care for their young, dividing up the labor of the colony, which includes tasks of sometimes stunning complexity.
However, differences between termites and ants are more striking than their similarities. They belong to two quite unrelated insect orders (ants, bees, and wasps are Hymenoptera; termites are Isoptera, and their closest phylogenetic neighbor is the cockroach). While bee and wasp societies are almost exclusively female, a termite colony includes roughly equal numbers of males and females, both of which attend to the community’s daily chores. A dramatic difference also distinguishes the way the two groups develop. Whereas ants, bees, and wasps go through larval and pupal stages before changing into their adult form, termites bypass this metamorphosis and come into the world looking like termites. They then increase in size via a series of molts but usually never reach sexual maturity. In a sense, termite societies are composed almost entirely of children.
Termites live much longer than most insects, including the Hymenoptera. “Most insects live and die in a few weeks,” says Michael Rust, the chairman of the University of California rRverside’s urban entomology department. “When a queen bee lays an egg, that bee will probably work most of the summer and die. The queen herself may live two or three years, but most of her offspring will live a summer. And the ants are like that. With houseflies and mosquitoes, you’re talking about weeks — from start to finish.” Worker termites, however, probably live about three to four years, according to Rust. And studies indicate that the Western drywood queen may live up to 18 years. Termite queens from Africa have been estimated to live 30 years. “That’s an extremely long time for an insect,” Rust comments.
Talking with Rust made me think that I would have mixed feeling about living in San Diego were I termitologist. What we don’t have here are termites that build ostentatious structures of the sort found, for instance, in Australia. Near the city of Darwin in the tropical far north, the compass termite (Amitermes meridionalis) constructs wedge-shaped homes that stand 12 feet tall, 10 feet long, and 3 ½ feet wide. Even more remarkable is the fact that these wedges are always oriented so that the narrowest sides face due north and south. As a result, the long sides catch the sun’s rays as it climbs to its apex and then begins to sink.
Australia is also home to Mastotermes darwiniensis, a primitive species of termite that builds vast networks of underground galleries. Its workers “have been observed attacking poles, fences, wooden buildings, living trees, rubber, sugar, human and animal excrement, and the plastic lining of electric cable,” reports Edward O. Wilson in his landmark work, Sociobiology. Wilson adds that the species has been known to reduce “unattended homesteads in the outback…to dust in only two or three years—house, fences, and all.”
In Africa and Asia, isopteran architectural accomplishments reach even more dazzling pinnacles. African termites build gigantic mounds that “impressed biologists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries so much that they assumed without question that the creatures that built them must be highly intelligent and society comparable in almost every way with human society,” writes British termitologist P.E. Howse. Henry Smeathman, who gave the first detailed account of termites in 1781 to the Royal Society of London, described towers he had seen in Guinea containing “nurseries, provision chambers, guardrooms, corridors, bridges, subterranean streets, canals, and a royal palace,” according to Howse, who says Smeathman noted among the versatile tower resident “civilians, chemists, water-diviners, well-borers, architects, engineers and surveyors.” (The diversity of their society didn’t inhibit Smeathman from sampling roasted termites, which he declared to be tastier than shrimp, “something sweeter, but not so fat and cloying as the caterpillar or maggot of the palm tree…”)
Although Smeathman misinterpreted what he saw in the termite mounds, his error was understandable. The animals’ engineering accomplishments certainly suggested the presence of teensy-weensy engineers. According to Howse, if termites were the size of men, the largest of their mound nests “would be about a mile high—four times the height of the Empire State Building—and five miles in diameter!” Many of the mound nests, moreover, contain special chambers where the termites grow fungi that they consume as food. To support colonies that can include millions of inhabitants, numerous African termite species have devised complex air conditioning systems. Some African desert termites also bore shafts more than 120 feet deep to tap into ground water, while species in wetter areas fabricate elaborate rain shelters. Termites of the genus Apicotermes in the Congo basin create egg-shaped nests found about a foo below ground and penetrated by slit-like openings formed so precisely that they look as if they were created by humans using machine tools—not by insects with brains smaller than pinheads.
Rust, the urban entomologist, points out that San Diego County is home to four or five species of termite that belong to the highly advanced Termitid family—the same one that includes the mound-building fungus growers of Africa. The local Termitidae belong to the genus Amitermes, Rust explains. “People [in San Diego] often see them after a rainfall. They’ll see plants and wood and sticks all covered with little mud tubes. The termites rush up to the surface from their nests deep underground and create the tubing, then do their foraging under its protective covering. After things dry out, they’ll go back down in the ground and you won’t see them for a while,” he says.
Do the local Amitermes cultivate elaborate fungus gardens underground? The scientist answers, “We really don’t know. They’re in the family that does that.” But because they don’t do much damage to structures, they haven’t been studies extensively. “And then the other thing is that they’re extremely difficult to study. I mean, their nests could be 15, 20, 30 feet down. Some of these termites are almost impossible to study because of their cryptic behavior. And no one really cares too much. Except for the occasional deranged entomologist.”
San Diego, moreover, offers plenty of other, more accessible termite study subjects. “It has a tremendous, rich variety of termite fauna,” Rust says. Up to 15 species may live here, making it one of the most termite-rich areas in North America. “It’s just a great place for termites. The weather’s nice. It doesn’t freeze. And there’s wood.”
Species that do invade the realm of humans can be remarkably successful at doing so. Rust says studies of structures in some of the older zip code areas in Orange Country have shown an infestation rate 90 percent or higher. “And there’s no reason to think San Diego would be any different.” Two species cause most of the problems, and a third one has frightening destructive potential.
By far the biggest termite troublemaker here is the species in my bedroom: Incisitermes minor, a.k.a. the Western drywood termite. These infest at least 60 to 70 percent of all the structures in San Diego, by Rust’s estimate, and an even higher percentage of those that are ten years old or older.
Entomologists consider them primitive, a judgment that can be a little confusing. Social-insect societies usually include a caste of sterile individuals whose sole function is to build or care for the young or do some other task. But drywood termites lack such true workers. Instead, the vast majority of drywood termites are sexually immature nymphs who fill the role of worriers but are not confined to that role for life. When soldiers in the colony are lost, for example, a certain number of nymphs will turn into soldiers, acquiring the elongated heard, exaggerated mandibles, and dark coloring that make them look so different form the workers. Should something happen to the king or queen, a humble worker can become transformed into a replacement royal. And nymphs routinely turn into alates. All these fantastic transformations appear to be regulated by chemicals called pheromones that are secreted by the termites and passed around the colony by constant exchange of oral and anal fluids.
Drywood termite colonies also can include “supplementary reproductives”—additional pairs of kings and queens—another primitive feature, according to Rust. “It’s considered more advanced to concentrate all the reproduction in one individual and have everything flow through her,” the professor explains.
Another capability of the drywood termite that struck my as sophisticated is their talent for surviving in the absence of water. They can derive it as a metabolic product of the wood they consume. Under extremely arid conditions drywood termites will even seal themselves in a cavity and huddle together to conserve moisture. “One individual in such a group survived in kiln-dried wood placed in a silica gel desiccator for 245 days,” reports Walter Ebeling in Urban Entomology. “Its abdomen was then completely flat form loss of water. When given access to water, the termite drank until it became turgid and then continued its life normally.”
Pretty nifty—but the ability to live all your life inside dry wood has one big drawback. Trees, dead or alive, are of limited size, so termite colonies within them can’t grow very large. Rust says drywood colonies probably never include more than 3000 to 4000 members. In contrast, if you can live in the ground but travel to and from your dinner, then your home can develop into something more impressive.
The Western subterranean termite (Reticulitermes Hesperus), San Diego’s other major troublemaker, has this capacity. Rust thinks its colonies typically can grow to 200,000 to 300,000 members. Like the Western drywoods, the Western subterraneans lack the true workers and usually have supplementary reproductives.
The subterranean environment protects Reticulitiermes hesperus from temperature extremes and supplies it with moisture. But the termites need wood for food. When they find wood lying in contact with the ground, they bore into it directly, but they also get to wood by building tube-like passages over obstacles. They make the tubes out of sand, earth, and wood particles, cementing them together with feces and glue-like substance that they secrete. These tubes snake up over concrete foundation walls to where the wood begins, protecting the termites from ants and other enemies and helping to keep the termites moist. But “periodically,” writes Ebeling, “the workers must return via the shelter tubes to their galleries in moist soil to regain moisture through their cuticles to replenish what was lost in the relatively dry wood where they have been feeding.”
Rust says no one knows how long the Western subterranean queens can live because it’s so hard to find them. He tells the story of a Chico entomologist who specialized in studying the insects that live alongside various termites in their colonies. “Some of [these insect cohabitants] mimic being termites and steal food and they parasitize or they kill other termites. There’s a whole little world that lives in there, usually in the royal chamber…This guy was a world authority on them and had them from all over Africa and Australia, and he offered a $100 reward to anyone who could bring him a Western subterranean queen, along with the rest of the royal chamber. He offered it for 30 years, but no one ever found one,” Rust says.
Similarly elusive is the newest isopteran threat to the floor joists and wall studs of San Diego homes, the Formosan termite, Coptotermes formosanus Shiraki. Until 1992, no evidence had turned up to suggest that it had become established anywhere in California. State agricultural officials had even declared with some vehemence that Formosan termites probably couldn’t survive here; they needed wetter conditions than those normally found in this state, some authorities thought. But in fact, a huge colony was thriving on a tree-lined street just a few blocks east of downtown La Mesa.
The owners of one of the properties in the 8600 block of Alpine Avenue got the first inkling of the problem one evening six or seven years ago when they found their bedroom to be filled with flying insects. One pest-control company declared that the invaders were carpenter ants and treated for that. “But I knew they weren’t carpenter ants,” the wife declares today. She and her husband called in an El Cajon-based pest-control operator, who fumigated the house. “But afterward, we still had them,” the wife says. The El Cajon exterminator tried using soil-based poisons, but when that didn’t seem to be working either, he finally sent some specimens of the hard-to-kill bugs to the entomologists at UCR. They in turn alerted David Kellum, the staff entomologist for the County of San Diego.
Although no Formosan termite was known to be established in San Diego, word of its fearsome reputation had reached Kellum. Native to South China, the Formosan termite was probably imported to Hawaii via the sandalwood trade in the late 1800s. Today the infestation rate exceeds 50 percent in some Hawaiian neighborhoods, with the insect causing far more damage than any Western subterranean or drywood termite ever dreamed of inflicting. “You can see the damage in the stores,” Kellum commented recently. He visited Hawaii last summer and says in one Pizza Hut he patronized, “You could punch your hand through the wall very easily. You notice that people don’t build very elaborate building because they have to replace the wood as it’s eaten up by the termites.”
Significant structural damage can occur within just six months, and the Formosans “may almost destroy an unprotected home within two years,” stated an article in California Agriculture last summer. Wood World magazine has reported, “It is not uncommon to find a $250,000 home with $100,000 in termite damage” caused by Formosans.
It made sense for the El Cajon pest-control operator to turn to the UCR scientists for help in determining whether the Formosan marauder had set up for housekeeping La Mesa. One of the premier centers for urban entomology in the United States, the UCR program had its roots in the work of Walter Ebeling, who had begun studying cockroaches, termites, and other urban-related insects at UCLA in the mid-50’s. When UC Riverside opened in the early ‘60s, the bug studies shifted there, and Rust got Ebeling’s job when the latter retired in 1975. That wasn’t a good time for termite research, Rust says. The insecticide chlordane, incented just after World War II, worked with such stunning effectiveness that by the mid-‘50s most termite research had screeched to a halt, Rust explains. In the 1960s, people began to suspect that chlordane might cause cancer in humans, but government authorities didn’t ban it until the late 1980s. Then “the dike was broken,” Rust recalls. “All of a sudden, there was money again, and people were interested in knowing why termites tunnel the way they do and how they tunnel an dhow do they find wood sources in the ground.” Since then the number of people studying termites has been expanding.
A short, genial man, Rust says about a third of the work being done in UCR’s urban entomology program now focuses on termites. And it focuses not with the monocle of the genteel seeker of knowledge for knowledge’s sake but with the cross hairs of the would-be assassin. “The University of California at Riverside is a land-grant institution,” the professor points of. “It has a mandate to work on problem solving. So for us it’s not a good day unless we kill bugs.”
March 5, 1992, if not a good day, must at least have been an exciting one. Rust says a group of about 15 people including him, Kellum, and other researchers and government officials converged upon the Alpine Avenue property. They found lots of wood around the outside of the house, including a deck, oak barrels used as planters, raised borders, and tree stumps. “All of those areas had been hit and hit hard,” Rust recalls. “Some of the railroad ties had literally been eaten in half. I mean, there just wasn’t anything on the inside!” The termites had also attacked a couple of pepper and avocado trees, tunneling almost 18 feet up inside one of them.
Among the half-dozen termite species that the researchers collected that morning were soldiers and workers that looked an awful lot like Formosans. A Florida researcher soon confirmed their identity and shed additional light on them. The head size of Formosan soldiers increases with the age of the colony, a phenomenon that they Florida researcher had been studying. He was thus able to declare that the La Mesa colony was probably at least ten years old.
More than just the shape and size of the Formosan soldiers give away their identity. “The Formosans have more soldiers,” says the county’s Dave Kellum, “and when you disturb a colony they will actually come out and try to bit you to defend the colony. They’re aggressive, and this doesn’t happen with most termites.” Unlike Western drywood or Western subterranean termites, whose only weapon is their jaws, the Formosan soldiers engage in chemical warfare. “They produce a sticky substance that’s used to defend against ants and other types of predators,” Rust explains. “They stick it on the ant, and it serves as a repellent or even as a mild toxicant.” (Once again, this pales beside the weaponry of the most advanced termites. Some of them grow long nozzles capable of squirting noxious goo at enemies several inches away.)
Like the soldiers, the Formosan termite queens call to mind their fecund African cousins. The Formosan queens’ bodies can reach the approximate length of a matchstick, says Rust, who adds, “This is an egg-laying machine.” Moreover, the Formosan queen is the sole source of all the individuals in the colony; no subqueens supplement her role. In the words of Howse, “She might say, with even greater justification than King Louis, ‘L’etat, c’est moi.’”
Given the queen’s egg-laying capacity, l’etat can be humongous. Researchers in other places have found Formosan colonies estimated to contain up to ten million inhabitants. So one of the first things Rust and his colleagues did was to try to assess the size of La Mesa’s infestation. (They had seen at once that it extended beyond the boundaries of the first property.) In May of 1992, they pounded about 1000 Douglas fir construction stakes into the ground at five-foot intervals around 16 properties surrounding what they supposed to be the center of the infestation. A few months later, they began collecting Formosan termites near the stakes, and in the laboratory they fed various dyes to them. By releasing the dye-fed termites and later recapturing them, the researchers were able to document that in one particular week, some of the termites had moved the length of two football fields. “Remember how big the termite is,” Rust admonishes. “And it has a tunnel that runs two football fields long. That would like us digging under the English Channel—an incredible engineering feat.”
Rust says it proved difficult to catch enough termites to estimate the colony’s population, but something that happened in the spring of 1993 gave the scientists insight into its staggering size. Rust says one of the Alpine Avenue residents noticed one evening that a driveway on his property appeared to be shimmering. When he inspected it, he discovered that the entire area—big enough to accommodate two cars—was covered with winged Formosan termites. (They tend to swarm on warm evenings just before sunset in May through July.) The property owner walked across the area, “and the next morning, you could see his footprints in the dead termites where he had walked,” Rust says. “So we measured the rough area of one of the alates.” He and his associates calculated that “to continuously cover that area would have taken more than two million alates—just an incredible number.”
By 1993 Rust and his colleagues had come up with an eradication strategy—one that involved the use of bait. At various sites, they installed tubes filled with cardboard and other cellulose-based materials that had been infused with a slow-acting toxicant that disrupts the growth of the termites’ exoskeleton. The entomologists hoped that the workers would eat the bait and pass the toxicant throughout the colony via their daily round of mutual feeding, licking, and grooming. Once it reached the queen and she succumbed to it, the colony would perish. Indeed, within a few month it began to look as if the strategy was working. “The termites ate 14 bait tubes,” Rust told a meeting of San Diego pest controllers this past December, adding that the number of Formosan workers and alates captured in 1994 plummeted. “It now looks like the hexaflumuron has taken the colony out.”
But Rust’s tone wasn’t jubilant. He admits today that he started to feel optimistic as the bait disappeared and the sign of the Formosans’ presence started to drop. “I thought, ‘My goodness, this thing has been swarming for eight, nine, ten years, and we can’t find and other [colonies]. So maybe it’s just not possible for them to make it’” Maybe San Diego County residents had gotten lucky.
That optimism evaporated last year, however, with the discovery of a second colony located perhaps three-quarters of a mile away from the first one. “It’s inconceivable that the two are [physically] connected,” Rust says, “because of the distance, for one thing, but also because of the terrain. There’s rock and other natural barriers.” Even more ominous is the fact that the second colony is upwind from the first one—in the opposite direction from where sticky traps have captured most Formosan alates.
Something else happened last summer that disturbs Rust. Until then, no one had found any evidence that the Formosans had damaged buildings. All the dame discovered on Alpine Avenue was done outdoors, to decorative wood and trees. So Rust says he had wondered if perhaps the initial consensus wasn’t right—that is, perhaps California was too dry for Formosan termites to survive here aboveground. However, the property owners who first spotted the Formosans had noticed that a section of their living room floor seemed spongy, and last summer they hired some workers to chick this out. When the workers tore into the ceiling below the suspicious section of floor, their inspection revealed that the termites had rendered huge ten-by-four-inch beams structurally unsound.
“I’ve never encountered that kind of damage before,” Rust says. Kellum, the county entomologist, elaborates. “The beams were just hollowed out. You could pick them up with one hand.” Nor had California walls ever been found to contain “carton”—a rock-hard material manufactured from mud, wood, sand, and fecal cement by certain termite species (including the Formosans). But when the workers opened the walls of the La Mesa house last summer, they found it. Rust thinks the carton serves as a form of protection. “I think the termites are modifying the environment to make it more like the soil. This material has the ability to absorb water and keep the wall wet.”
Rust says today, “I’ve probably come 180 degrees from what I thought this insect was capable of doing aboveground.” Could Formosans spread throughout San Diego Country (parts of which are much damper than La Mesa) and cause the kind of massive damage seen in Hawaii and, more recently, various Southern states? “I don’t know,” says the entomologist. “One of the problems with these exotic insect pests is that they get here and they’re in such small numbers, they go unnoticed for a long period of time. Then when we finally do find them, sometimes we’re at a point where we can’t do anything about them anymore.”
When I asked Herb Field about the Formosan termites, he sounded much more sanguine. Field is an urban entomologist working on the staff of Lloyd Pest Control. “I think it’s a pretty isolated situation,” he commented about the Formosans. “If they were widespread, you would think that, given the number of [termite] inspections that are done in San Diego County, someone would run across a number of colonies elsewhere. You’d start to see some trends. And that hasn’t occurred. I think it takes the right environment for it to happen.”
Lloyd is the only San Diego County pest-control company with a full-time entomologist on its staff; it’s the largest and one of the oldest exterminators in the county. A man named James Ogle Sr. bought the business in 1937. Back then downtown San Diego was overrun with rats, and Ogle had colorful method for eradicating them, according to employees. He would go into warehouses armed with a .22-caliber rifle (still displayed at the company headquarters on Sherman Street) and start blasting. “His son tells us stories about shooting them off the rafters,” Field says.
The company expanded into termite treatment about 40 years ago, according to the entomologist, and such treatment now makes up about a quarter of the business. When a residential infestation by Western drywoods appears to be limited, Lloyds’s workers drill into the wood around it and inject a localized poison. In other limited areas (like attics or condos), the company also uses a heat-killing method developed in 1987 by UCR professor emeritus Ebeling. But for destroying termites that have spread throughout a house, the company has relied for the last 25 years on a substance known as Vikane.
It’s now the most common gas used for termite fumigation, and Field has nothing but good things to say about it. “Vikane is inorganic,” he asserts, adding that “that’s an important distinction between it and an organic product like methyl bromide [an alternative still used by some companies]. The important difference is that an inorganic fumigant will kill everything that it’s supposed to kill, but it won’t stick to other organic materials. That’s important because when we pull the tarps off, an inorganic gas will dissipate. Within an hour, it’s gone. In contrast, an organic gas will stay in the walls. It will hang onto other organic materials, which is virtually everything in your house. It leaves a bromine residual.” Field says there’s some concern about the impact of this on human health, whereas Vikane leaves no residual. “People ask us if they have to wash their dishes [after their house has been tented] and we tell them, ‘Not with Vikane!’ Field adds that state law requires all fumigators to test the air after a tent has been removed from a residence, and the reading must be less than five parts per million.
Within recent years, various nonchemical approaches to killing termites have been marketed, ranging from Ebeling’s heat to cold (“We freeze their little buns off!” touts one Orange County exterminator) to electricity to microwaves to nematodes. Tests of the latter (a small parasitic worm) have been unimpressive, and in general Field believes that using predatory bugs to wipe out residential termites don’t look promising, “Because of the nature of the [termite] and the way it lives, bicontrol is very difficult. You have a creature that has the ability to seal up its colony by gluing its fecal pellets together and closing up its hole, or in the subterraneans, by using mud. It becomes very difficult to release wasps or exotic mites or something like that. Because the termites just close off the colony.” At the same time, the termite pesticides don’t have the same drawback that agricultural pesticides do—namely, they haven’t become ineffective over them. They kill all the termites in the house, leaving no survivors to breed resistant offspring, Field says.
The other alternative methods have all demonstrated some power to kill termites. But the problem, Field points out, is that to use them effectively, you have to know just where the termites are, not the easiest thing to determine. To get some insight into how an inspector tells if termites have invaded a house, I accompanied Bob Zepernick on one of this morning outings.
Zepernick is a huge fellow with a smooth-shave head an a shaggy mustache. He moved to San Diego around 14 years ago; before that he laid sewer pipe in Orlando. “My ex-wife had married a guy in the navy, and they’d moved here with my kids. I wanted to be closer to them, but when I moved here, man there were zero jobs!” Zepernick says one day he saw an ad for a job with Lloyd Pest Control. Around 200 people applied for it, but he thinks his size helped him to twin a fumigator’s position. He grew bored with that and became an inspector after about four years. “I’ve never even been tempted to look for another job,” he said. “I guess I found out what I was put here to do.”
One of their Lloyd inspectors who work out of the headquarters, Zepernick usually inspects three or four places per day. On a chilly Monday morning, he and I piled into of Lloyd’s mouse-bedecked pickups and headed to a home in an older section of Poway.
Zepernick told me that the owner had found termites frass in her living room about six month before, but she’d cleaned up the evidence before he had arrived, and he’d been unable to pinpoint where the termites were located. He’d suggested that she call him again if more pellets appeared, but she’d seen nothing until now.
This time, when Zepernick and I walked into the living room, we discovered that the woman had been careful to preserve the evidence. On the off-white carpet, she laid a white cloth, and against it the dark pellet s stood out in sharp contrast. Far above, an open-beam ceiling vaulted to a height of at lest 20 feet. The termite inspector fetched a ladder and from it beamed a flashlight at the suspect are.
Zepernick wanted to do a thorough inspection of the whole house, but the woman protested that she had to rush off to work. Her teenage daughter would be here for another half-hour, though, and Zepernick could inspect during that interval, she allowed. Under this time pressure, he decided to forgo his normal examination of windowsills throughout the interior. Instead he would go straight to the attic space. That’s where evidence of drywood termites turns up most often, he told me. “ I don’t know if the wind blow them up into those higher areas when they swarm, or what. But on a two-story building, you’re most apt to see some evidence on the second story than you are on the first.”
The worst damage Zepernick has ever seen was in an attic, he declared. “A rafter had actually snapped, just from the weight of the roof. In fact, a couple of them had snapped.” He says he’s seen a few cases where subterranean termites did enough damage to render part of the flooring unstable. “The best one I can think of is some people who were moving a bed, and it actually fell down through the floor. But that’s just years and years of total neglect. That isn’t something that happens overnight… I’ve gone down in basements or in the lower floors of houses were the termites were just stacked up. Where they must have swarmed for years! Inches of dead termites! And you could tell they were old. They were all bleached out, so I knew they’d been there for a few years.”
The Poway home had two attic areas, a small one over the bedrooms and a much larger one that opened into the kitchen pantry. Three feet into the larger one, the beam from Zepernick’s flashlight illuminated a ta rattrap, in which a rat lay decaying. He sees rats often, Zepernick told me. “And you wouldn’t believe how many black widow spiders are underneath people’s houses. I see them all the time!” He’s never been bitten by one though “I’ve had mysterious bits on me. And then you get these people who let their dogs go underneath their houses, where there are, like, a trillion fleas. I’ve come out and have just been covered with fleas. I sometimes think I’m not the best housekeeper in the world, but gosh, some people! And then they wonder why they have roaches and stuff.”
More than just the fauna makes pest inspecting a job for the stouthearted. The larger attic in the Poway house had a four- or five-floor clearance, but it looked as if it was designed to be an obstacle course. Conduit and heating ducts and mysterious cables snaked through the pillow insulation, and here and the wood joists lay in wait to trip the unwary. The space was dark; although a light build dangled overhead, Zepernick prefers to work by flashlight. “It’s easier to spot the droppings,” he explained. “Sometimes when you turn the light on, they’ll tend to blend in with the insulation.”
Even with the lights out, Zepernick couldn’t find any fecal pellets in the Poway attic. “I see a lot of silverfish, but no termites,” he declared. “With just the one kick-out hole in the living room, you almost want to think it’s something just getting started. I doubt very seriously that there’s more than a couple of hundred termites up there now.”
He wasn’t finished. The Lloyd inspector spent at least another 45 minutes on the property checking the garage mapping the house, poking at all the wood under the rafters, but he found no more evidence of termites. Back in the pickup truck he told me what he would recommend to the owner. “You always give them two options,” he said. “Anytime you see any evidence, you always want to give them the option of the ten fumigation—because there are so many inaccessible areas in any house.” Tent fumigation is the only thing guaranteed to wipe out all the termites everywhere. “But as a secondary recommendation, we’ll advise them just to treat that one small area.” A fraction of the cost, local treatment probably made the most sense, Zepernick hinted.
Zepernick’s second inspection of the morning proved much more productive. The Point Loma home of two retired court reporters, it was under attack by carpenter ants. They’d started dropping out of the living room ceiling, a turn of events that repulsed the fastidious owners. The husband also had discovered termite droppings on the new pain job of his Buick Skylark, housed in a tidy garage. When Zepernick emerged from the crawlspace under the house and announced that he’d found five separate signs of termite infestation, the couple needed little convincing to agree to a $983 tent job that they scheduled for the following week.
It wouldn’t be difficult for a termite inspector to report evidence that wasn’t there, Zepernick acknowledged as we drove away from the house. Most homeowners don’t follow along with the inspector as he wriggles through a crawlspace or around an attic. And inspectors get a commission for whatever extermination services they sell. But he couldn’t deceive people, Zepernick told me. “If they have termites, I tell them, and if they don’t, I tell them that too. I have to be able to sleep at night.”
I got a taste of a higher-pressure approach a few days later. Talking to termite experts had made me think about my own house, and in my bedroom I’d taken a good look at one of the widow frames. In a corner where the paint appeared to be peeling, I had poked, and a paper-thin layer of paint and wood had given way. Further prodding revealed a yawning cavity that stretched for two to three inches in both directions from the corner. It looked as it some vandal had hacked at the wood with an ice pick.
The termites did thin, I knew, and I suggested to my husband that maybe we ought to get a full inspection. It’s easy to grow alarmed once you begin to read the termite industry literature. DoweLanco distributes one brochure about “the enemy within” that bristles with acing phrases: “organized, well-trained and ready to destroy… you may never see the enemy within…until it’s too late.” Orkin pest control claims that termites in 1995 caused nearly $1.1 billion of damage in the United States, “more than the combined damage done by all tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods.””
I called a local office of Terminix and requested a free inspection. A brusque middle-aged man with shoulder-length hair showed up a half-hour early for our appointment. “What seems to be the problem?” he asked. When I mentioned the bedroom window, he asked to have a look at it, and after I led him there, his face grew grim. “They’ve been in here a long time,” he intoned. He claimed to see more pellets in a crack in the floor below the window. The, straightening, he looked me in the eye and told I shouldn’t be alarmed if he wound up recommending fumigation. “This looks like a serious problem.” termites in the window almost certainly meant that they were in the walls too, infesting the wooden studs, threatening the structural integrity of the room. In a corner of another window, he found remnants of some wings and the corpse of one alate—more confirmation of the dire condition surrounding us.
He didn’t inspect anywhere else inside the house but proceeded to the outside, where he took only a few desultory pokes at the rafters. Then he prepared to enter the crawlspace areas, of which my house has two. A moment or two after disappearing into the first one, he scurried out, looking shaken. There was an animal nest in one corner, he asserted. When I asked if he’d seen any animals in it, he confessed, “I didn’t get that close to it.”
He spent more time inside the main crawlspace, and when he emerged, he asked me if we’d ever treated the house for subterraneans termites. I said no, and he told me that he’d seen some evidence of their presence, so it might be a good idea to treat for them too.
“Do you mind if I get my husband?” I asked. “I really want him to see this.” When we returned a moment later, the inspector was looking uncomfortable. In the presence of my husband, he was vaguer about the possible subterranean problem, and when the two of them went under the house, all he could point out were the pieces of scrap wood that might one day attract subterranean invaders.
Treatment for subterraneans wouldn’t be necessary, he concluded at last, but tenting the house was essential. If we scheduled it on a day when Terminix had other business in our neighborhood, it would cost $1599. Otherwise, it would cost around $1850, he told us.
We eventually called four other termite companies and asked for inspections. None of them thought our infestation looked serious (and no one else saw any signs of an animal’s nest underneath the house). The pleasant man from Deal Termite found more evidence of winged termites in my husband’s closet. “But that’s not too bad,” he reassured me, suggesting that they might even have come from a neighbor’s house. “It’s when you see hundreds of the swarmers that you get a little concerned.” He recommended using microwaves around the window area.
The methodical young man from Harbor Pest Control spotted a termite gallery high up in the second-story rafters outside the upstairs bathroom. But he thought local treatment could take care of this. Bob Harris of Seacoast Termite detected more frass in a pile of wood under the eaves outside our bedroom. “In a perfect world, fumigation would probably be the best solution,” he said. But he added that we could just fix the window from and wait to see if any other problems developed. There might be more wood damage over time, but it was likely to be insignificant. “My attitude is, ‘Out of sight, out of mind,’” he declared. “Frankly, the house is going to be there when they’re gone, so it’s easiest and best to just leave it alone,” Kellum declared. “Drywood termites move very slowly. You’re talking 5, 10, 15 years before you see any actual damage. A new home should not have it, and if you have an older home and they’ve been there for a while and they haven’t done that much damage you can see, you really don’t need to go to the expense. I tell people they could take a cruise instead! If you’re planning on being there for the rest of your life, you might do it. But the way we change homes, you’d be crazy to do it now, if you have to di it again in 5 or 10 years.”
We’re not planning to move for a long, long time. So we waffled. I thought about the other things we could do with the money. I thought about my resident termite colony—about all the years they’ve lived there and what their lives must be like and what they would sound like if I could hear them. I was almost ready to clean up their mess and squirt more Termout in the window frame and try to ignore them when, two days after I started writing this story, we found a pile of droppings in our bed, coming from yet another ceiling beam.
It offended us—the termites shoveling their excrement out of the hole they’ve excavated in our rafters and dumping it into our bed. It felt like one insult after too many. After only a bit more hesitation, we decided to annihilate them.
So on a sunny morning not long ago, one of the pest-control companies covered our house with a jolly tent colored with light and dark blue stripes. After sealing up all the edges and weighting the bottom with sandbags, they pumped between 30 and 35 pounds of Vikane into the interior. A technician assured us that within just one hour, it would spread evenly throughout every place it could penetrate, including all the air spaces in all the wood.
Once it filled the air inside the wood, the Vikane passed into the termites’ spiracles, the breathing holes along the sides of their bodies. A fluoride ion in the Vikane reacts with enzymes in the insects’ bodies, disrupting basic cellular processes. But death comes slowly—up to five day after the animals first breathe the gas. Eggs can continue to hatch, but the baby termites, lacking the requisite protozoa within their guts, slowly starve to death.
Termites communicate with each other in a number of ways that humans don’t yet understand well. Healthy termites engage in complex tapping and shaking behaviors. They lay scent trails. Some are believed to secrete chemical alarms. Did the termites in my bedroom walls signal their alarm t each other as the poison began to work on them? Did the king and queen—now almost 11 years old—die first? Or were they the last to go?
I felt bad as my termites lay dying. I’d come to admire their complex society. I know that termite fill a crucial niche in the world, recycling dead trees and bushed that otherwise would pile up, as unbiodegradable as any plastic six-pack holder. We caused the death of this community, and I’m still not certain we had to do it. Of course, a whole lot more termites remain on the planet. Is that consolation?