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Operation Full Stop Means "Lights Out" for Termites

By Erin Kendrick-Peabody
July 14, 2003

New Orleans residents thought they might be overrun by the Formosan subterranean termite. This invader, only about a half inch long, has a hearty appetite for wood and was chewing away at the architectural gems of the world-famous French Quarter in the Louisiana city.

But now, Operation Full Stop, the national campaign meant to stop termites in their tracks, appears to be curbing the Formosan scourge. It relies on the cooperation of several city, state, federal and private agencies. Now, Agricultural Research Service laboratories and scientists, who helped launch the program five years ago, report that termite numbers are down, finally, in the city's historic district.

Researchers haven't always had a handle on the damaging pests. A surge in Formosan populations in the late 1980s had termite specialists scratching their heads. The result of this brainstorm? The geographic scope of termite management needed to be bigger-- much bigger.

Instead of just single homes and businesses, scientists in ARS' Formosan Subterranean Termite Research Unit in New Orleans started treating entire city blocks for termites in the French Quarter. The areawide approach worked. In 1998, about 70 percent as many alates--tiny, winged termites--were captured inside of treated zones as outside of them. By 2002, that number was down to 42 percent.

Instruments that can pinpoint exactly where the termites are hiding are a critical part of the offensive strategy. Two ARS entomologists--one an expert on termites, the other on insect sounds--have created a device that can detect termites munching behind walls.

Researchers at ARS' Southern Regional Research Center in New Orleans are also developing innovative ways to kill the pests. One promising method attacks termites via their tastebuds. An ARS-developed bait matrix combines a tasty insect snack with a slow-acting toxic agent.

To read more about this many-pronged pest-control effort, see the July issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.