Appetite For Destruction

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Africa has its killer bees and California has the Medfly, but New Orleans has the Formosan termite. And hard as it may be to believe, the fate of the city's schools rests on whether this half-inch insect can be stamped out.

"The Formosan termite for buildings is the equivalent of AIDS to humans,'' says Ken Ducote, the director of facility planning for the New Orleans public schools. "It's hard to control and impossible to contain.''

University of Florida researchers have called Coptotermes formosanus, or Formosans, "the most destructive structural pest, wherever it occurs.'' Experts suspect that ships returning from World War II and the Korean War brought it to U.S. port cities in Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Texas by way of China and Taiwan.

Formosans eat anything with cellulose, but their taste for wood poses their real threat to the older buildings in New Orleans.

Formosan damage has closed one of the city's schools and is threatening to close a second--Schaumburg Elementary School. Nearly 60 school buildings are infested, and Ducote estimates total annual damage between $2.8 million and $5.6 million.

Each year, Formosans hunt new mates and new homes during the two-month "swarming'' season, which begins in late April and early May. Entire colonies of two to four million termites will leave their nests in the early evening and fly for a few hours as a swarm. Individual termites will then land, drop their wings, pair off, and find moist wood in which to make a new nest, mate, and lay their eggs.

Each year during the swarming season, Greg Henderson, an entomologist at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, sets traps in New Orleans's French Quarter to catch a sample of the bugs and estimate fluctuations in their numbers. Henderson is still counting this year's catch, but last year his estimates showed the Formosan-termite population had increased 500 percent since 1989.

During the swarming season, workers at infested schools have to repeatedly sweep up inch-thick layers of wings and dead termites from the floor. Still, they try to make the best of a bad situation. At Schaumburg Elementary, for example, teachers use their unwelcome guests as a science lesson.

On balance, though, the Formosans contribute little to learning. This spring, Denise Wheeler, a 1st-grade teacher at Schaumberg Elementary, discovered the termites gnawing on her children's primers. "One week, they weren't there,'' she says. "The next week, I went to pull out a book and there they were.''

Vol. 13, Issue 39E, Page 31

Published in Print: July 13, 1994, as Appetite For Destruction
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