Don’t ignore Formosan termite threat in Lowcountry

formosan termite damage charleston sc

Chris Leigh-Jones has been involved in renovating about 30 neglected homes on the peninsula. His company looks to invest in those that are 100 years or older and a challenge to repair.

Formosan facts

Where do Formosan termites come from? In South Carolina, they were introduced to Charleston during the mid-1950s through port shipments from Asia.

Where have Formosan termites been found in South Carolina? Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties as well as in Beaufort, Orangeburg and York counties and on Hilton Head Island.

What do Formosan swarmers, which will appear around Memorial Day, look like? They have a brown body, are about 1/4-inch long, and have wings with lots of hairs.

Are Formosans super-termites resistant to termiticides? No, but there are millions of Formosans in each subterranean colony compared with a few hundred thousand in native termite colonies, so they do more damage in a shorter time. They can be controlled, as can native termite species.

How much termite damage is caused by them in the Lowcountry? More than 90 percent of the termite damage done in the Lowcountry is caused by Formosans.

Source: Clemson University

Thanks to Formosan termites and the damage they cause, he has not been disappointed.

“The little beasts will take away all of the structural timber,” says Leigh-Jones, co-owner of the Luxury Simplified Group.

He recently found extensive Formosan damage in a house at 20 Percy St.

In the coming weeks, the class of Formosans called swarmers will fly from established underground colonies by the thousands to start new colonies, says Clemson University entomologist Pat Zungoli.

They typically begin around Memorial Day and fly through the first part of June, but they eat on structures year-round, she says.

Leigh-Jones says that in munching on the wood what they leave is something akin to a honeycomb. “The wood has the structural strength of a wasp’s nest. I have put my fingers into a 10-by-10 timber,” says Leigh-Jones, who also has fallen through a floor a time or two.

The Formosans at 20 Percy didn’t go back to their ground colonies like the native Eastern subterranean termites that first infested the house, Leigh-Jones says.

“Once there is a nest that is well-established, they make satellite nests throughout the structure. You’ll have to take out the internal walls and floors, but some of the external cladding generally stays. You can’t fix it with a weekend trip to Lowe’s.”

He adds, “It’s not for the faint of heart. The house must be stripped to its bare bones.”

And it if the damage is not removed, “It’s like putting lipstick on a pig.”

Local hot spots

Bart Snyder of Palmetto Exterminators says termites cause about $75 million to $100 million in damage annually in the Lowcountry alone. Snyder says the Hampton Park area is ground zero for reports of termite infestations in homes.

Hot spots for infestation also include Daniel Island, I’On and Hamlin Plantation in Mount Pleasant, and homes near Charles Towne Landing and along Orange Grove Road west of the Ashley, he says.

Hurricane Hugo felled trees on Daniel Island, which remained undeveloped for many years, Snyder says. Those trees provided a lot of termite food.

“The populations grew unabated because they had a free environment, undisturbed to grow in. Later, developers were careful not to disturb the trees. Many of them have massive Formosan termite colonies.”

Termites from those trees have infested some of the new homes. “Every infestation is manifested differently,” Snyder says.

It could take a few months or years before the homeowner sees signs of a problem. Seeing a termite in your house does not necessarily mean there is an infestation. Nearly all will have come inside because they were attracted by the light when feeding on the trees nearby.

“But when termite mud tubes are popping out of the walls, there usually is an infestation,” he says.

The primary treatment is to apply chemicals to the soil. Baits can be used to supplement soil treatment. Chemical wood treatment sometimes is used during construction.

When you have an existing infestation, a powder is injected into the area where the termites are active, Snyder said. When the termites come into contact with it, they carry it throughout the nest, spreading it to other termites.

“We let them die out and then open up the wall and pull the nest out,” Snyder says. When the damage is repaired, new wood will be treated before the wall is closed.

Randy Bishop of AllPro Pest Management says Formosans swarm from late afternoon until early evening.

Some residents have a difficult time distinguishing swarming termites from swarming ants, Bishop says.

“If you don’t know whether what you are seeing are termites or ants, check the wings,” Bishop says. All four wings of the termite are the same length, while two of the ants’ wings are shorter.

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