Controlling termites through innovation

Linda F. Benedict, Henderson, Gregg

Termites have been feeding on wood for 200 million years. Thus, the idea that they can be eradicated can be somewhat amusing; however, it should not be that difficult to keep them from eating our most prized material possession – our homes.

The magic elixir chlordane effectively controlled subterranean termites in Louisiana until it was banned in 1989, after which less effective repellent termiticides came into use. By 1990, homeowners were seeing 30 percent of the treatments fail. Today, new nonrepellent liquid chemicals and toxic baits, some developed by LSU AgCenter scientists, are much more effective and every bit as good as chlordane ever was.

Of utmost importance to the future of termite control is developing better ways to locate termites and target them with these innovative treatments.

A research goal has been to discover why termites behave the way they do so that new and better methods and devices can be developed to shorten their life span and reduce their damage to homes and trees. To be a termite detective requires looking for clues at the scene of the crime – the home invasion – and developing theories to explain what the evidence shows.

If worthy, these discoveries are patented. Patents are important because an invention usually requires further development by industry, which means financial investment. Without a patent to protect the knowledge from being used by a competitor, companies would have little incentive to invest.

Termite patents awarded to the AgCenter include new bait products, treatment methodologies for attracting and locating termites, and plant-derived repellents and toxicants.

A patent from these achievements that brings in the most revenue to the AgCenter is a pop-up termite indicator. The ground monitoring bait station helps to indicate if termites are present and has been licensed for professional use and for overthe- counter sales in several home improvement stores across the United States. It was an important discovery to help in the battle against the Formosan subterranean termite, the most damaging termite wherever it occurs in the world.

The idea sprouted from a growing need of the pest control industry to have an easy-to-use way to detect termites. The industry was suffering from the daily chore of checking bait stations one by one. Companies were losing employees because the job was just too boring and repetitive.

A brainstorming session with research associate Jay Paxson initially centered on using a “sniffer” type device – one that would “sniff” for the compound naphthalene. Working with Roger Laine and other researchers in the LSU biochemistry department, AgCenter researchers had earlier discovered that naphthalene is an indicator of termites because they produce more of this substance than would be found normally around the home.

This discussion led to considering a mechanical detection device – one that might somehow operate by a spring. It was soon decided that a spring-loaded device would not work because termites would move into ground monitors and clog the works with mud. A spring pushing on a monitor probably would not signal anything, and a false negative (that is, no termites indicated but actually there) is worse than not having a monitor at all.

But the idea of using a spring lingered. Clearly, the idea had merit, but how would it operate? A couple of weeks of struggle with the idea led to a clear vision of the inner workings of what eventually became the spring-loaded monitor. A drawing of the idea was rendered and presented to Paula Jacobi, then the director of the AgCenter Office of Intellectual Property. She encouraged moving forward with the concept. Testing different trigger mechanisms over the next year helped perfect the invention. Companies quickly showed interest and licensed the invention.

Today, the pop-up monitors and baits are prominently displayed in stores. Spectrum Brands owns the rights to the overthe- counter version, and Orkin licensed the pop-up for use in the professional market.

It is a simple invention. The trick was to have the spring pulling rather than pushing and to have it loaded near the top of the monitor where mudding up the works by the termites would be limited. Moreover, a wooden stick, which kept the spring taut against a plastic flag, would alert that termites were present when foraging termites ate through the stick and caused the spring to pull a signaling flag up through the monitor casing and into the air. Termites signal their own presence by simply doing what they do best – eating wood.

Gregg Henderson is Paul K. Adams Professor of Entomology in the Department of Entomology.

(This article was published in the fall 2012 issue of Louisiana Agriculture magazine.)

1/17/2013 10:38:42 PM
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