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This is What 2,000 Termites Eating a Model House Looks Like

How would it look if termites eat my house? This is a question that Thomas Chouvenc, Ph.D., is asked a lot. Because termites eat wood inconspicuously, it is usually hard to detect them and estimate how much they already ate by the time you realize you have them. The Formosan subterranean termite (Coptotermes formosanus) is a particularly aggressive termite species, which can grow extremely large colonies, with millions of individuals in mature colonies, and can therefore infest a house with millions of mouths to feed.

Chouvenc is an assistant professor of urban entomology at the Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, and he often interacts with homeowners that had a bad experience with a termite infestation.

“We live in an area with a high termite pressure, especially from various invasive species, and usually people realize they have a termite problem too late, when serious damage has already occurred,” Chouvenc says.

In an effort to raise awareness to Florida residents about their risk of structural damage resulting from termite activity, Chouvenc came up with a visual analogy to explain why it is important to inspect your house regularly, especially in areas where these termites are established. He created a small two-dimensional replica of a house (30×20 centimeters and 2 millimeters thick) in a flat, enclosed arena, let loose a young Formosan termite colony into it, and watched it unfold over time. With only 2,000 termites in this young colony, it took only three weeks to turn the replica into poop.

“We estimated that a mature colony can consume more than 5 kilograms of wood per month, so if such a colony feeds on a house, it can quickly compromise the integrity of a structure,” says Chouvenc. The visual result of this experiment is impressive, as we can see the house vanishing in front of our eyes within this 30-second time-lapse montage of the three weeks of termite activity.

In south Florida, it is an especially good time to be aware of invasive subterranean termites, because the swarming season of Asian subterranean termites just started (Coptotermes gestroi), and seeing such a swarm is a clear sign you have termites in your area.

Chouvenc suggests that, if you live in such an area, inspection and possible prevention treatment (liquid termiticides or baits) may worth the investment to avoid long-term, costly damage to a house.

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