Thursday, January 27, 2011


The most damaging of all pests are termites. Astronomical numbers of these insects live beneath the ground. In fact, the world's termites outweigh humans 10 to 1, which is amazing when you consider that our species includes Michael Moore and Oprah.

Every year in the U.S., termites cause $2.5 billion in property damage (about twice that of storm damage). They live in large underground colonies that have 300,000 workers on average, with the queen laying 5,000 to 10,000 eggs per year. Workers will travel 300 feet away from the colony in search of food, and build shelter tubes in which to travel (they cannot travel very far outside the tubes because they dehydrate faster than Lindsay Lohan after last call). An average colony can consume the equivalent of more than two linear feet of two-by-four pine board annually, which might not sound like much, but it is quite a bit when you take into account that it's almost as much wood filler as you'll find in 35 Big Macs.

There are products you can buy that supposedly help you discover infestation, but they're completely worthless. I once bought a kit that contained a few dozen small, plastic containers with holes in them and cardboard inside. The idea is that you plant them in the ground and periodically pull them out to see if any cardboard has been eaten. There are two problems with this: 1) rain water and bacteria get in, causing the cardboard to decompose into an unrecognizable mess; and 2) even if termites are in them, that doesn't necessarily mean that they're in your home. Of course, I found this out after I had paid $80 for fifteen cents worth of plastic and cardboard. But this isn't the biggest financial mistake I've ever made. For example, since the late 1980s I've lost so much money in the Stock Market that it would have been way cheaper if I had just developed a cocaine addiction.

If you have a termite problem, you should call a professional exterminator, who will drill large holes around the entire foundation of your home, spray them with poison, and charge you anywhere from $500 to $2000. In the old days (before the Dubya administration), the poison of choice was Dursban, which was just okay: it killed or repelled termites that came in contact with it, but termites could still enter a home if there were gaps in the poison barrier. This was not uncommon because the chemical had to spread out into the soil in order to make a seamless barrier, and underground things like rocks and clay could hinder this. Nowadays exterminators use a product called Termidor. It does not repel termites (which would cause them to seek untreated areas). Instead, foraging termites ingest the poison and/or carry it on their bodies, and everyone they contact (termites feed and groom each other) will also be exposed. The active ingredient (fipronil) is slow-acting, which gives a contaminated termite time to transfer it to other termites before dying itself. (By the way, fipronil has been used since 1995 for flea and tick control on cats and dogs.) The chemical is made in New Jersey, which kind of figures. You know why they call New Jersey the "Garden State"? Because of all the industrial plants. (Get it? Garden? Plants?) Anyway, the manufacturer says that fipronil is not harmful to us (unless you consider vomiting, convulsions and uncontrolled pooping to be harmful).