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Georgia initiative fights ferocious alien termite

By Brad Haire
University of Georgia

The Formosan termite is considered the most destructive structural pest in the Southeast. And specialists are trying to keep it from getting a foothold in Georgia.

The Formosan subterranean termite initiative was established to find and eradicate the colonies of this ferocious, foreign insect in Georgia.

Formosan termites are much more aggressive than native termites, said Dan Suiter, University of Georgia Extension entomologist spearheading the initiative.

Sites

So far, Suiter and UGA colleagues in Athens and Griffin, Ga., have located, destroyed and continue to monitor 16 confirmed Formosan termite colonies in Georgia.

Most sites are confined to the metro Atlanta area. One was recently found in an apartment complex in Cairo, Ga. Three sites are in Savannah.

"The Formosan termite will eat almost anything containing cellulose," he said. "And when they start feeding, they don't leave until it's gone."

One Savannah colony was discovered eating cotton underwear in an overturned tractor trailer. But termites generally prefer softwoods.

The Formosan has already caused $20,000 to $80,000 in damage to various Georgia sites. That's nothing compared to what it can do once it really finds a home.

Invasion ties

It has caused more than $100 million in damage in New Orleans. A federal program is now spending millions of dollars a year just to fight the termite and save that city's famous French Quarter.

The Formosan is believed to have been introduced to the ports of Charleston, S.C., and New Orleans on ships returning from the Pacific Ocean after World War II. Originally from China, it quickly felt at home in the subtropical climate and developed a taste for American wood.

It has since spread sporadically to other states, including Mississippi, Texas, Alabama, Florida and parts of California. The hungry critter is believed to have caught a ride out of New Orleans on railroad crossties used mainly as landscaping timbers.

DNA research at the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences has confirmed that the Formosan termites in Georgia came from those introduced in New Orleans.

Through the national Railway Tie Association, Louisiana voluntarily quit exporting crossties to help slow the spread of the termites. "But by no means does having landscape crossties mean you have Formosan termites," Suiter said.

The termite is still rare in Georgia. "We want to keep it that way," he said.

The Formosan

Formosan termites swarm at night in May and June only and are attracted to light. No native termite in Georgia does this. If you witness this bug swarm, contact your county's UGA Extension Service office.

Formosan termite soldiers have oval- or teardrop-shaped heads. Native termite soldiers have rectangular-shaped heads. Formosan soldiers will spread their mandibles when threatened and try to bite anything that handles them.

They make up as much as 25 percent of a colony, which can contain millions of termites. Native termite soldiers make up only about 3 percent of a colony.

Members of Georgia's structural pest control industry and the Georgia Pest Control Association are partners in the initiative. Several chemical companies have donated termite baits and chemicals to help eradicate the Formosan.

The Georgia General Assembly allocated $75,000 each year for three years to fund the initiative, which ends this year.

(Brad Haire is the former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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