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April 13, 2009
Volume 87, Number 15
p. 64

Rites Of Spring

Ah, spring is here. Every year I look forward to the longer, brighter, warmer days. I watch for the swelling tree buds, the greening grass, and the crocuses on the front lawn. But this year, as the earth awakened, so too did the termites.

Termite swarmer: Harbinger of an invasion, it is only three-eighths of an inch long and a menace to stick-built homes. BASF
Termite Swarmer: Harbinger of an invasion, it is only three-eighths of an inch long and a menace to stick-built homes.

I wasn't exactly sure at first that the BUG INVASION was indeed a termite swarm. And until I knew for sure, I decided not to share my suspicions with my wife, concerned that I would upset our domestic tranquility. A few days after my discovery, the first of three inspectors showed up while she was at work and confirmed my worst fears.

"Get them out of our house!" my wife said. Visions danced in our heads of our beloved abode overtaken by these nasty wood-chomping insects. We imagined our family home turning to sawdust and collapsing in ruin. But in my heart, I knew chemicals would save us. I just didn't imagine how hard it would be to get accurate information on the right chemical to choose and the right provider to apply it.

The inspectors assured me my beloved home wouldn't fall down tomorrow. But apparently the termites have been at work on my humble abode for some time.

A mature colony of 300,000 Reticulitermes flavipes, the eastern subterranean termites who were my unwelcome house guests, send out swarmers when living conditions get a bit crowded—about four to 10 years after they establish their colony. An average colony annually consumes the equivalent of more than 2 linear feet of a 2- x 4-inch pine board. I hope they get heartburn.

The swarmers become the kings and queens of new termite colonies. I was reassured by a University of California, Berkeley, website that 99% of the little beasts would die in the first few days of their lives because of the "hostile" environments they encounter. However, I was not pleased to learn that the termites' closest insect relatives are cockroaches.

Time to evict the little buggers and then get the damage repaired. For the eviction, I had two soil-treatment choices: a repellant, generally a pyrethroid, which kills termites but which they often can detect and avoid; and a nonrepellant, such as imidicloprid, which termites can't sense but which eventually kills them and any other termites they come in contact with.

One inspector recommended a repellant, and the two others, the nonrepellant treatment. But I rejected the inspector who wanted to inject a repellant into the soil because he couldn't, at first, remember the name of the insecticide he would use.

The second and third inspectors both recommended the nonrepellant Phantom by BASF, whose active ingredient, chlorfenapyr, is approved for use in New York state, where I live. The second inspector assured me that New York state law only required him to treat the foundation soil on either side of the observed infestation.

He then measured the entire perimeter of my house and quoted a price on the basis of those measurements, assuring me he would come back anytime within a year if termites showed up elsewhere. However, the third inspector said he would treat the entire perimeter of the house and also priced his service on the basis of my home's perimeter.

Finding information on termite treatments on New York's Department of Environmental Conservation website was not easy and would likely discourage all but the most determined truth seeker. This distraught homeowner just had to know: Do I treat the whole perimeter or just a small section? I called an expert at DEC's Pesticide Compliance Center who told me he wasn't aware of any restrictions to treating along the exterior walls of a house. BASF's expert was a little more direct: "Run, don't just walk away, from anyone who won't treat the entire perimeter."

So, now I join the one-in-three U.S. homeowners who have had termite infestations and collectively spend $5 billion annually to repair the damage termites cause. I think I may be a little less enthusiastic as the earth awakens next year. The rites of spring may be beautiful, but they can also be treacherous.

Marc Reisch wrote this week's column. Please send comments and suggestions to

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Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2009 American Chemical Society


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