When World War II came to an end, the men and women of the Armed Forces stationed in China and Japan were finally able to return to the United States. Before mobilizing its troops, however, the military purchased a number of storage crates to facilitate the transport of equipment and supplies. The crates, made of Asian wood, were discarded at dumping grounds near Louisiana shortly after the troops arrived home. Unbeknownst to the returning veterans, the crates that once held their belongings were likely teaming with Formosan subterranean termites. Upon arriving in the United States, the invasive species began to slowly propagate. Despite the initial lag, by 1960 New Orleans was completely infested, and today citizens of the city complain of their overwhelming abundance. The invader’s success can be attributed to the extremely hospitable environment afforded by the southern United States. This region is characterized by a warm, humid climate which parallels that of the termites’ Asian homeland perfectly. Moreover, the invasive termites dwell both above and below ground, while species native to the larger New Orleans area are found solely below ground. Thus, the Formosan subterranean termite enjoyed limited competition as it wrought havoc across the South.
Today, citizens of New Orleans no longer wonder if they will be faced with termite infestation; they merely await the arrival of these pests, accepting their ensuing destruction as an inescapable fate. Because the termite problem in the south is so severe, researchers are forced to invest great amounts of time and energy in finding ways to control these pests. One of the most notable individuals working with Formosan subterranean termites is Dr. Claudia Riegel, senior entomologist for the city of New Orleans Mosquito and Termite Control Board. So prominent are these invaders, Riegel has given up hope of eradicating the termites and instead looks for methods to control their rapid proliferation. The most effective technique exploits the termites’ inherently social nature. Because the creatures are predisposed to share food sources with one another, Riegel can set a single poisoned bait trap and destroy an entire nest in the process.
While the strategy of baiting termites with contaminated food is an impressive feat of ingenuity, there are several perplexing questions that accompany this technique. One must wonder, for instance, the overall efficacy of this method. If it takes a prolonged amount of time for a termite nest to die from the poison found in the bait, the pests may be able to inflict significant damage before they are eliminated. Furthermore, does the number of nests destroyed by this time-consuming task actually have a significant effect of termite population numbers? If the answer is no, then taxpayers may be wasting their money on ineffectual termite control. Perhaps a more effective strategy would entail making termite traps a standard part of newly constructed houses, or installing these devices along the outsides of all wooden buildings. Finally, it may behoove etymologists to consider the introduction of yet another nonnative species in an attempt to control the termite population. While it is true that this method holds the potential for disaster, proper research can hedge the probability of misfortune, meaning there would be a very high benefits-to-risk ratio. If a more successful means of suppressing these invaders is not developed, it is depressing to think that New Orleans might soon lie in ruins.