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Hidden, hungry invader threatens city of Mardi Gras

Avid wreckers: City fights Formosan termites

From Michael Schulder

Damage to a nest of Formosan subterranean termites brings hordes of workers and soldiers with dark, oval shaped heads scrambling to repair the hole.
Damage to a nest of Formosan subterranean termites brings hordes of workers and soldiers with dark, oval shaped heads scrambling to repair the hole.

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New Orleans (Louisiana)
University of Florida
Cool Science

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (CNN) -- The home of Mardi Gras is under siege, not by the throng of partygoers swarming here this week, but by tiny unseen invaders: Formosan termites.

For decades, the historic buildings -- in the city that's home to jazz and jambalaya -- have fought for survival against one of the most voracious and destructive forces in the termite kingdom.

The historic Spanish-style buildings, some of which date back to the 1700s, have become a Formosan termite buffet. Old degraded wood coupled with the humid New Orleans climate created the perfect environment for the termites to multiply.

Each year, in the warm, thick springtime air, millions of termites begin their annual mating season -- the insect version of speed dating. The ones who survive start their own colonies, which over the years has spread millions of hungry termites throughout the city.

These buildings have "been burned. They've been demolished. And these were built back in the 1700s and 1800s," said Ed Bordes, a New Orleans native who heads the city's Mosquito and Termite Control Board. "To lose these structures to the Formosan termites [would be] tragic."

Known as "super-termites" for their ability to quickly destroy massive amounts of wood, experts think the bugs arrived in New Orleans aboard a military transport ship returning from Asia after World War II. From a mere four colonies in the 1960's, the termites have now expanded to dozens of colonies all over the Southeast -- often traveling inside recycled wood from old railroad ties.

The massive Formosan colonies pose a more formidable threat than other varieties. They are hard to find because their tunnels can stretch more than 300 feet -- over three times longer than the typical termite tunnel -- and they can chew through an entire building with military precision.

In the old French Quarter, city leaders are learning a lesson in warfare. In order to win, you must understand the enemy.

"The problem with human beings is we are very visual animals," said University of Florida entomologist Nan Yao Su, who's been called in to help formulate a plan of attack. "If we don't see the termites, we have a hard time understanding them."

Formosan termites are experts at hiding, but Su knows how to find them. After spending his childhood playing with insects, Su has devoted his career to understanding bugs.

His strategy in New Orleans was radically different from methods used in the past.

Entomologist Nan Yao Su is helping New Orleans fight back against termites.
Entomologist Nan Yao Su is helping New Orleans fight the termites.

"When you see an insect, it's most people's reaction to just indiscriminately spray pesticide in the soil. It's sort of like carpet-bombing. You don't know where they are. You're just bombing everywhere, but often you miss the target. We call it spray and pray," Su said

But over the years, the vast majority of Formosan termites survived this approach. The chemicals either never reached them or just forced them to spread out further, devouring unprotected homes and trees along the way.

Like a Pied Piper for pests, Su devised a simple method to get the termites to come out of hiding. He set out softwood blocks -- an easy termite meal.

Once the bugs came there to feed, he would replace the softwoods with bait laced with slow-acting chemicals that the termites eat then share with the others in their colony.

The bait system targeted the species specifically, and most important, there was no need to saturate the soil with toxic substances. Bordes said the plan proved simple yet effective -- use the termites against themselves, a sort of Trojan horse.

Five years into the war, there are signs that the city is moving in the right direction. With the new approach, city officials say there's a reduction in the number of termites caught in the sticky traps used to gauge their populations.

But there are many battles left to fight a species that's been around for thousands of years.

"We never promised we would [win], but we are making good progress," Su said.

CNN Producer Camille Feanny contributed to this story.

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