Tabor science prof terminates termites…naturally

When it comes to termites, Richard Wall is the terminator.

Though his method of baiting rather than poisoning is not as flashy or dramatic as traditional methods used by name-brand companies, his background in entomology ensures a much cleaner, safer and environmentally friendly approach to ridding homes and outbuildings of the destructive pests.

Wall, a biology professor at Tabor College, studied insects for his graduate work. He said the baiting approach is actually more high-tech and scientific than spraying.

“It’s not as dramatic as using pesticides,” he said. “But with poisons, you don’t know what all you are killing.”

Ironically, it’s likely not the intended victims that are effected.

“In most cases when you spray poison, the termites are so sensitive they just try to avoid the chemicals,” Wall said. “You are just trying to keep them out of your house, so you create a barrier of poison. You are not really killing them. That’s why companies that spray don’t guarantee the termites will be killed. They just say they’ll come back and spray again if you find termites.”

Rather than cause the insects to flee, Wall’s method actually attempts to attract termites by using a system of baited devices inserted in the ground around the structure.

“We usually put 25-30 stations 10-12 feet apart around a building,” Wall said. “They are checked once every 30 days.”

The first stage involves placing cellulose, the food source the termites are seeking when they attack wood, in the stations. Since the type of termites found in the Hillsboro area are strictly subterranean, they prefer an underground food source, Wall said. Once the insects are feeding on the bait, a synthetic hormone is added to the bait. The hormone causes termites to be unable to molt. Their skin remains juvenile, while they continue to grow internally.

“That just doesn’t work for very long,” Wall said. “All insects need to molt.”

The first to encounter the hormones are the workers, who ingest the bait and, before they die, carry it back to the soldiers and the queen, who dine on the regurgitated cellulose. Because hormones don’t break down, the soldiers and queen get a full dose of the deadly cocktail and pass it on to the larvae. Queens and soldiers die because they are incapable of feeding themselves. Eventually, the colony breaks down.

The process of killing termites this way may take as little as six months or as long as two years, Wall said. But the solution is permanent, and it leaves no chemical residue. It is therefore much more environmentally friendly. And, assuming a new colony does not move in, the problem is solved.

Contrast Wall’s approach to the traditional method of chasing and spraying, which will likely take at least the same length of time but leave all kinds of toxic chemicals around the house.

“This is a whole new paradigm,” Wall said. “We are treating only the termites. In 10 years, as restrictions on pesticides become tighter and tighter, this will be the only way to control termites. The beauty is, it’s non-toxic.

“Ironically, I have had to get all the licenses I would need for traditional pesticide applications. There are no laws for this stuff. It’s too new. But it’s really very scientific and high tech.

“Scientists have taken a natural hormone and synthesized it so it can be produced cheaply. There is virtually no chance termites will become resistant to it like they can become resistant to pesticides.”

Wall said the technology has been around for some time already. Large commercial companies have begun using a similar system. He said he began looking into the method after watching his parents battle the beasts in their home for several years with virtually no success.

“My folks’ house inspired me,” Wall said. “They had termites really bad. They were even eating the paper off the sheet rock. Commercial spraying couldn’t control them. My folks sprayed for two or three years.”

Finally, the elder Walls used a commercial hormone system to get rid of the termites.

“Last year, I thought that might be a pretty good job for me during the summer when I am basically unemployed,” Wall said. “I think I treated two houses.”

This year, he has remained much busier with about a dozen clients, including Tabor College. Most homeowners call him in the spring when they see swarms of termites collecting on windows.

“They only swarm for a short time in the spring, and they can only fly for a few minutes,” Wall said. “They take off, and when they hit something, they fall to the ground and their wings drop off.”

If the area is conducive to a feeding, the termites may begin a colony. It takes a several years for a colony to become strong enough to show up in a structure, so damage may be well under way before symptoms of an infestation are noticed.

“If you are seeing a large swarm, you have a serious termite problem,” Wall said. Since the insects need to remain in the dark in all except their short flying stages, most of the damage will occur inside walls and crawl spaces.

Treating termites is expensive, no matter which method is used, Wall said. But hormone treatments are considerably less expensive than traditional spraying.

A commercial company might charge around half as much for baiting as for spraying. As a one-man operation, Wall is less expensive than the nationally known companies.

“The average house around here will cost about $750 to treat for the first year,” Wall said. “Much of that is for labor to set up the stations. After the first year, it’s about $250 per year.”

Termites are a big problem in Hillsboro, Wall said. Nearly every house is either a victim or a potential victim, despite the fact that the county is not really suited to the creatures.

“We are actually on the northern edge of termite territory,” Wall said. “If we get a cold winter, some of the colonies will freeze out.”

Wall said construction companies can use methods to keep termites from attacking buildings.

In houses built before the 1940s, before insecticides were widely available, the foundations were tall, making it difficult for termites to enter, he said. Once chemical treatments were developed, however, buildings were constructed much closer to the ground, inviting invasion.

“Good construction techniques can really help,” he said.

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