New Orleans’ Earth-Friendly Termite Solutions

A tiny creature with a voracious appetite, the Formosan termite is wreaking havoc on New Orleans: The city spends about $300 million per year on efforts to repair and prevent building damage caused by the bug, which originally hails from China. Although the Formosans have been a presence in New Orleans for several decades, new termite defense strategies are beginning to curb the destruction. Among these programs are Operation Full Stop and Integrated Pest Management (IPM), both which are reducing the numbers of termites without drenching the city with ecologically risky insecticides.

With a far more extensive palate than North American termites, Formosans consume anything that contains wood fiber—buildings, trees, patio decks—as well as crops and plants. Persistent and ambitious, they are able to chomp through plaster, plastic, and asphalt to get to fresh grub, and one colony can devour as much as 1,000 pounds of wood in a year.

It would be nice to say the Formosans’ affection for New Orleans—and particularly for the city’s French Quarter—is on account of the area’s famed Cajun cuisine; more accurate, it’s due to the dried timbers and moisture-retaining clay bricks that were used to construct nearly all of area’s buildings. These two materials provide food and a humid climate for the termites, conditions exacerbated by easy access, as the area’s builders did not have the foresight to seal potential termite entry points. The result is that 99% of French Quarter structures have suffered at the mercy of the termites’ mandibles, earning the area a place on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of most endangered historic places.

Fortunately, the preservationist and scientific communities are experimenting with new approaches to curb the Formosans’ rampages. One such effort is “Operation Full Stop,” a joint program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, the Louisiana State University Agricultural Center, and the New Orleans Mosquito and Termite Control Board. The axis’ most successful tactic has been to plant bait and alate (wing) traps underground. The traps contain a slow-acting insecticide that termites carry back to their colonies and pass on to other members until the community is eradicated. According to Dr. Frank Guillot, project director of Operation Full Stop, there has been a 50% drop in termite population in the French Quarter pilot area since the program began in 1998.

In the 1980s, the common wisdom was to use liquid termiticides to fight termites; in addition to proving an unsuccessful deterrent, the method resulted in large areas being doused with toxins. Now, builders and pest managers have adopted a far more ecological and health-friendly alternative to minimize damage: Integrated Pest Management (IPM).

IPM is a holistic strategy, aiming to deter termites at every stage of their life-cycle through design and construction choices, soil treatments, and structural maintenance. For example, building with pressure-treated wood is one of the most basic ways to discourage Formosans, while allotting for and addressing the issue of moisture—both within and outside the structure—also reduces the likelihood of infestation. Building maintenance and landscaping, too, can play a crucial part in reining in termites; methods can be as simple as treating soil and trees, using the bait system, promptly repairing water leaks, and fumigating if and when necessary.

Formosan termites have been expanding beyond Louisiana: Significant colonies have been located as far away as Hawaii, San Diego, and Atlanta. But if New Orleans continues get a grip on its termite problem via Operation Full Stop and IPM, the city will be an example of an earth-friendly way to bite back at a Formosan attack.

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