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A Formosan subterranean termite soldier. Link to photo information
A Formosan subterranean termite soldier. Click the image for more information about it.

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New Orleans Termites Dodge Katrina Bullet

By Erin Peabody
December 26, 2006

Tales of survival have been trickling out of New Orleans ever since Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005. But few have focused on what might be considered the city's most tenacious residents—its subterranean termites.

Agricultural Research Service (ARS) entomologists recently confirmed what many termite researchers and city officials were hoping against. Despite the high waters, winds and other havoc unleashed by Katrina over a year ago, the invasive Formosan subterranean termite is persisting in New Orleans.

Mary Cornelius, who works in New Orleans at the ARS Southern Regional Research Center (SRRC), has been tracking termite numbers in City Park—a 1,300-acre green space in the heart of the city—since 2002. Just after Katrina, the park was inundated with brackish water spilling out of nearby Lake Ponchartrain.

According to Cornelius, even the three weeks of flooding that left four-foot-high water marks on the park's bald cypress and live oak trees weren't enough to chase off the termites.

Cornelius' data shows that in October 2005, about a month after the storm, 82 percent of the termite traps she'd been monitoring were still active. The 125 traps she tracks are situated at the base of trees, a food source and focal point for colonies of termites, one of the only insects in the world capable of digesting woody cellulose.

SRRC entomologist Weste Osbrink also tracked post-Katrina termite activity. Compared to Cornelius, he reported a slightly lower survival rate among colonies, especially those associated with pine trees. The scientists announced their findings earlier this month at the annual meeting of the Entomological Society of America in Indianapolis, Ind.

While a few theories exist to help explain the insects' remarkable staying power, Cornelius puts a lot of stock in a unique material the termites craft out of chewed wood and their saliva and feces. This all-natural sealant, referred to as "carton," helps waterproof the colonies' extensive network of underground nests and corridors.

Given the destructive termites' perseverance, researchers are encouraging homeowners and businesses to not abandon their pre-Katrina control efforts.

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