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Termite myths busted by research findings

By Sharon Omahen
University of Georgia

Brian Forschler wasn't hired to be a myth buster. But as an entomologist focusing on termites, he's constantly disproving myths that surround the tiny destroyers.

As a researcher with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Forschler has spent the past 15 years studying termites and their biology. Time and time again his research uncovers facts that dissolve long-standing termite myths.

They're not 'white ants'

"The first scientific publication on termites in the United States (1876) called them 'white ants' and said they lived in nests," he said. "It took 50 years to prove they don't live in nests and you still find people who believe they do."

Forshler focuses his research on termite biology because he says it's the "key" to controlling them.

"It's very important to understand the biology of the creature you are trying to control," he said. "If you don't, it'd be like treating a restaurant for German cockroaches the same way you'd treat for houseflies."

By studying small groups of termites in wood-filled plastic boxes, Forschler has developed a population model. A termite queen lays roughly 150 eggs per day and the average termite lives two years.

"If you multiply that by 365 days in a year, it comes to about 100,000 which is far less than the millions of insects found by some estimates of termite population size," he said.

Wood not their only food source

Forschler's research also contradicts the amount of wood termites eat.

"People say they can eat 15 pounds of wood in a minute and that's just absurd," he said. "An average colony of termites only eats a 4-inch section of 2x4 a year."

Termites eat more during the summer and less during the winter, he said. Their peak swarming time, March, is just around the corner.

"I've recorded field populations eating anywhere from 350 milligrams per day in March to less than 2 (milligrams)," he said.

Forschler has uncovered some strange termite menu items, too.

"If they're hungry enough, they will eat some surprising sources of cellulose," he said. "I've seen them eat apples, redwood lumber and even underwear."

Not hunters or gatherers

Termites don't seem to have an overall plan for seeking out food, he said.

"They swim through the soil in groups, waiting for a piece of wood to fall into their area," he said. "And when we change a wooded lot into a subdivision, they think they've died and gone to termite heaven."

Unlike ants, termites don't take their food back to a permanent nest-site. They find food, taste test it, and send back information for other termites to come and join in on the feast, Forschler said.

"Basically, they are sitting on their food while they eat it," he said. "As they eat, they create a potential new nest-site where the ever-mobile queen can rest and lay eggs."

Having studied them for over a decade, Forschler labels termites as "cryptic little creatures."

"As individuals, termites are little wimpy creatures that we should easily be able to control," he said. "The problem is they are hidden from our view and they live in groups where they find strength in numbers."

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

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