The coneheads are about to swarm.
A ravenous Caribbean termite with a pointy head – hence the name – is awaiting the start of rainy season to send out clouds of winged colonists to found new nests, threatening to spread the species beyond its square-mile foothold in Dania Beach.
Hoping to stop the advance of a uniquely dangerous, difficult-to-control species, the Florida Department of Agriculture last week deployed crews to destroy nests as part of a broader campaign seeking federal aid and a partnership with the pest-control industry to devise the best way to control them.
Crews spread out west of the intersection of Interstate 95 and Griffin Road and found nests on 13 properties, where the termites were shredding walls, broom handles and anything else made of wood. They placed the nests in plastic garbage bags and brought them to a nearby trash incinerator, said Mark Fagan, spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture.
The work, building on past efforts in the neighborhood, is intended to drive down their numbers before swarm season, when tens of thousands take to the air to conquer new territories. Although there’s no evidence they’ve spread, experts say it’s possible because termite colonies take years to build up to the point where the nests are visible.
“We know the population in Dania Beach has been sending out their fliers since the early 2000s,” said Barbara Thorne, research professor at the University of Maryland’s Department of Entomology, who is working on the campaign. “We have these colonies out there cooking and eating the dead wood in the trees. It’s likely there are young colonies hidden in trees, shrubs, stumps, structures.”
The termite, formally known as Nasutitermes corniger, first turned up in Dania Beach in 2001, most likely in wood pallets arriving at a nearby marina from the Caribbean. They form above-ground nests shaped like basketballs and watermelons, and they tunnel up the sides of trees and houses, leaving behind a distinctive web of dark brown trails.
The agriculture department plans a public relations campaign in the coming months to alert residents beyond the borders of the termite’s known range, with door-hangers and other methods.
“We want it to be an early warning system,” Thorne said.
As part of the effort, experts inside and outside the government have concluded the termite needs a new name. The species had been known as the tree termite – in addition to its clunky Latin name – but there are other species of tree termite and the name may give homeowners a false sense of security, implying the termites only consume trees.
They settled on conehead, catchy, easy to pronounce and reminiscent of the Saturday Night Live family of aliens from the planet Remulak (who claimed to be from France). They plan to submit the proposal to the Entomological Society of America, which approves new common names.
Termites are nothing new to South Florida; 20 or so species provide a challenge to homeowners and a steady income to the pest-control industry. What makes this termite different is that it lives above ground, so it doesn’t compete with the more common subterranean termites.
It’s not a picky eater, as long as it’s wood. And because its habits are so different from the typical South Florida termite, pest-control companies can’t deploy their usual tactics, such as treating the soil with insecticide.
“Its behavior and biology are entirely different from what the industry is accustomed to,” said Allen Fugler, executive vice president of the Florida Pest Management Association. “It will build a nest in a tree. It looks like a paper wasp nest, and it could be easily overlooked, even by trained professionals.”
The department of agriculture is working with the Florida Pest Management Association and Certified Pest Control Operators of Florida to devise consistent, reliable control methods the average pest-control operator can use.
The department has requested $202,000 from the state Legislature and the National Pest Management Association is lobbying Congress for matching funds on a three to one ratio, for a maximum of $606,000 in federal money. The funds would go toward training and subsidizing termite control for property owners who can’t afford it, said Missy Henriksen, vice president of public affairs for the National Pest Management Association.
The season generally lasts from March through May, depending on the species, with the coneheads being among the last to swarm. You may see clouds of what appear to be flying ants around your home or piles of wings on the ground. They chew off their wings after they’ve served their purpose. Although most of the swarmers fail to found new colonies – getting eaten by birds, spiders and other predators – a few are successful and that’s enough to keep South Florida’s termite populations thriving.