Tackling Termites Together

Two heads are better than one, so the saying goes, and with collaboration in mind, two Forest Service research units have come together in the fight against the troublesome termite.

The Forest Service’s Southern Research Station (SRS) Termite Team, stationed in Starkville, Miss., recently merged with the Durability and Wood Protection unit at the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL).


Termite workers and soldiers.

FPL has conducted termite research on control and suppression via baiting systems and termiticide development for decades, while the SRS termite team has a long history of evaluating termiticides and barrier systems for federal and state registration. The reorganized Research Work Unit (RWU) recognizes the potential of the combined expertise of the termite program to impact the structural pest management industry and make a difference in the lives of every homeowner.

Research synergies between the merged programs combine efforts to make a positive contribution to the forest products industry and the pest management industry through public-private partnerships that address national and international interests on the following:

  • the effects of climate change on insect pest migration and the effects on forest ecosystems
  • mitigation of invasive species migration to suppress economic damage to structures in urban settings and tree mortality that contributes to the threat of wildfires
  • developing targeted inhibitors for an eco-friendly approach to termite control in green building applications
  • investigating the role of decomposition rates of course woody debris on long-term carbon sequestration and nutrient cycling on ecosystem restoration
  • promotion of Forest Service initiatives to reduce and limit accumulation of and contamination from toxicants in the environment

Home Wreckers in Search of Moisture: Tips for the Homeowner

The work of FPL’s Durability and Wood Protection Research Unit is broad in scope and includes studies into damage and contamination by decay fungi, mold, and termites. All these household pests are attracted to excess moisture, which can result from inadequate surface drying of condensation, leaks in pipes and foundations, poor ventilation, or flooding.

Homeowners are increasingly concerned about moisture management and indoor air quality. However, chronic moisture problems in a home can lead to more than poor indoor air quality—persistent high moisture can lead to a cascading biological succession from mold to decay to termite damage.


Blue-black color on walls shows evidence of mold growth. (Photo used with permission from A&J Specialty Services, Inc.)


Contamination with mold can render a home unlivable, and cleanup may require gutting the entire structure. In some cases, cleanup costs for toxic molds can equal the value of the home!

  • Mold occurs on the surface of wood exposed to excessive humidity or wet/dry cycling.
  • Visible mold growth is a good indicator of damp conditions or excess moisture.
  • Water vapor in humid air will not wet wood sufficiently to support decay fungi, but it will permit mold growth.
  • Mold, though unsightly, causes insignificant strength loss to structural wood components.
  • Common mold fungi can cause allergic symptoms; however, some molds (Stachybotrys sp.) produce mycotoxins, which cause illness and make homes uninhabitable.
  • New York City Department of Health and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have established guidelines for the assessment and remediation of mold fungi in indoor environments.

Patents? From Dead Trees?

You may be surprised at how many technologies from FPL research get patented. What is the value of that? Patents are an effective mode of technology transfer, as they make technologies more appealing to the marketplace due to the exclusivity they offer. Technology transfer leads to increased productivity, increased industrial innovation, enhanced U.S. industrial competitiveness, job creation, and improved and lower cost public services.


Patent Advisor Janet Stockhausen and her team ensure that this technology transfer happens each year. In addition to the work of JY Zhu listed in a previous post, below are the patents that came from FPL this year.

Patents and Licenses

Maria G. Rojas, Joan A. Morales-Ramos, Frederick Green, and Thomas A. Kuster  – Naphthalenic Compounds as Termite Bait Toxicants (Patent No. RE44,543, Issued 10/22/13)


Wood attacked by termites.

Jeffrey P. Youngblood, Yizheng Cao, Robert J. Moon, William J. Weiss, and Pablo D. Zavattieri – Cellulose Nanocrystal Additives and Improved Cementious Systems, licensed by Purdue Research Foundation

Jilei Zhang, Zhiyong Cai, and Sung Phil Mun – Methods of Synthesizing Graphene from a Lignin Source, licensed by Mississippi State University

Video: Trail-following Termites

It might seem a little reckless to house termites at a wood research laboratory. But they’re important to our Durability and Wood Protection unit, and we’re not afraid to play with fire every now and again. (Actually, we do just that in our Fire Test Lab, but that’s a story for another day.)

Here’s a look inside the termite dream home set up in one of our laboratories. It’s warm, dark, humid, and full of wood and cardboard.termites1Some of the termites also live in smaller termite condos, complete with plenty of cardboard for munching.termites2And while the insects serve a serious purpose, we also have a little fun with them from time to time. Who doesn’t like to show off their special skills?!?

Termites release a trail-following pheromone to keep the colony in line and make sure no one gets lost. Interestingly, the chemicals in pen ink are similar to these pheromones, so termites will follow lines drawn on paper like they would follow their own natural trails.

Fun, right? Skills!

Termites in Wisconsin Arango continues historic research

In collaboration with San Diego State University and University of Wisconsin researchers, FPL termite experts have provided an update on previous work with termites in Wisconsin. In this post, Rachel Arango explains how her team’s work adds to greater understanding of northern termite biology, colony formation, and the possible impacts of climate change.


Rachel Arango in the lab.

Guest Lab Notes post by Rachel Arango.

Although subterranean termites are more common in the southern U.S., they have also been found in colder climates such as Wisconsin. New research suggests that a changing climate may allow termite colonies to spread even further in the warmer north by formation of winged reproductives.

Little attention was paid to northern termite activity until Dr. Glenn Esenther’s historic work in Sheboygan, Wis. His 1969 paper, “Termites in Wisconsin,” highlighted areas of termite activity in the state and gave some insight regarding termite biology. Despite this work, research on termite reproduction, caste formation, and distribution is still needed to facilitate control strategies.


Caste diversity in R. flavipe.

This study updates Esenther’s early work, further pinpointing areas of termite activity in the state. Only one species of termite is established in Wisconsin, Reticulitermes flavipes, the eastern subterranean termite. Results indicate that termite populations still appear to be limited to the southern half of the state, supporting the idea that Wisconsin lies on the northern boundary of termite territory. One long standing hypothesis about termites in this northern range is that they tend not to form the winged reproductive forms (alates) as often as their southern counterparts. Instead, numerous secondary reproductives are thought to be responsible for colony expansion.

For this work, we were seeking clues about how new termite colonies form. We used a genetic technique that has been useful in other population genetic studies to determine genetic variation within and among Wisconsin termites. Analysis of the genetic data showed significant differences among the populations collected around the state. This supports the idea that human introduction, rather than introduction by winged termites, was likely the origin of termite colonies in the state.

The exact triggers for colony formation of winged reproductives are still unknown but this study afforded an interesting observation of numerous alates in the field after a particularly mild winter. This suggests that temperature plays a role in termite wing development. It is possible that changing climate trends could allow for formation of these winged termites, rapidly expanding their distribution throughout the state.

Click here to see the technical poster about this project from the recent American Wood Protection Association conference.