Summary: Formosan termites are sometimes called œthe super termite because they build larger colonies and do more damage than other species of termites found in the US.
The southern United States has become a battle ground between homeowners and a small, wood-eating invader known as the Formosan termite. More than one billion dollars is spent annually in the US to combat and repair Formosan termite damage to homes, schools, telephone poles, and living trees.
Formosan termites came to the United States from China and East Asia after World War II. They are thought to have been carried back in wooden crates used to transport military equipment. The crates were brought into southern shipping ports like New Orleans and Charleston and they were disposed of by burying them in the ground, giving the termites an excellent place to begin building colonies. They spread quickly and today Formosan termite colonies can be found in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, New Mexico, Virginia, Texas, and southern California. Hawaii also has a large Formosan termite problem. The termites cannot reproduce in colder climates, so their habitat will probably be restricted in the US to warmer climates in the southern states.
Formosan termites are more destructive than the drywood and subterranean termite species that are native to the same geographic locations. Formosan termites can have millions of individuals in their colonies, rather than just hundreds of thousands like in the other kinds of termite colonies. The large size of the Formosan termite colonies means that they eat more wood and are harder to get rid of.
The Formosan termites have other habits that make them more destructive than your average termite. They travel further to find food sources and they are known for building nests that have no contact with the soil. These aerial nests can be found in the second or third stories of houses, unlike most termites that require frequent contact with the soil. Their habit of eating live trees is also uncommon to other termite species living in the same area.
Formosan termites have become such a problem in New Orleans that they are believed to infest 30% of the historic live oak trees in the city as well as many residences in the famous French Quarter. New Orleans is perfect for Formosan termite infestations because of the high humidity and closely spaced older homes that are common in the French Quarter. In the home of Mardi Gras, the termites cause $300 million dollars of damage a year!
In addition to everything else, Formosan termites are more aggressive than native termite species. They are known to chew through plastic, rubber and even copper sheet metal in search of food or moisture. The termites can cause leaks in plumbing by chewing through sealant between water pipes. They can cause power outages by chewing through electrical wires. The can even topple utility poles which have crushes cars and houses. The Formosan termite is so destructive that they can do substantial damage to the structure of a building after only two years. Sometimes the property owner it not even become aware of the problem until something falls off the house.
Early detection of Formosan termites is difficult because they generally stay underground. If they build a nest inside of a house it will usually be between the walls. That nest is a combination of chewed wood, excrement, saliva, and soil and looks a lot like large chunks of shredded wheat. Only Formosan termites build this kind of nest in houses, referred to as cartons. The nests can get so large that it can make the walls bulge. Defiantly something to pay attention to.
It is difficult to distinguish the worker Formosan termites from other varieties of termites, because they are approximately the same size and milky-white color. The winged productive members of the colony are larger than in other termite species, however, and they are good for distinguishing between the different species. The winged members of the colony will swarm in late spring or summer, coming out of the ground en mass to reproduce. The soldiers of Formosan termites are also distinguishable from other types of termites because they have larger and more oval shaped heads. If you find a colony, look for the soldiers. In a regular termite colony there will only be about 1-2% soldiers in the nest. In Formosan nests, there are about 10-15% soldiers. This can be another good way of identifying if the termites are Formosan.
To treat a Formosan termite nest you should probably call a professional. They will use integrated pest management techniques like bait systems and soil treatments or tenting the entire house for fumigation (see photo). These measures are difficult to employ without specialized knowledge and training. In the meantime, decrease your chances of having to battle it out with Formosan termites by ventilating crawl spaces to reduce moisture and removing any tree stumps, fence posts, or wood scraps in your yard that might attract the termites to your house.
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