Colonies in Collision

Colonies in Collision

This is the history book of the termite wars in Australia. There hasn’t been a book like it and there probably never will again.

Captain Arthur Phillip led 11 ships with soldiers and convicts from England to Sydney Cove to set up a new British colony on the great south land.

Other colonies were already there: colonies of termites.

The first collisions occurred about six months later in 1788 when convicts tried to shift a crate of calico and “…heaved to lift it. The wood crumbled in their hands; the top of the crate lifted away from the bottom that disintegrated into paper-thin shards of timber and a seething, scurrying mass of insects. Like white ants…”

Later… the settlers followed the explorers into new country where termites were waiting to devour the timber in their humpies, sheds and homes: “…the termites could hardly believe their luck as timber houses with fireplaces appeared. To them, there are few things more welcome than woodheaps in Copto country.”

No matter what humans did about them, “…the bloody termites kept coming”

It was the colonists against

the termite colonies.

(Page 25) This pair of charmers were cedar-getters of the 1800s. They went to the best parts of the country and settlers followed. The termites welcomed them all. Photo: Frozen in time Gallery

$AUD55 per copy (+ postage & handling)

The aboriginal people d >mias and gunyahs were usually light tree branches; hardly of interest to Coptos and the other termites. But the white people were much more than indignant when termites ate their slab walls, flooring timbers, etc. The termites had the upper, and lower, hand for the first 127 years of the colony. In 1915, William Flick inflicted (a most appropriate word) the first defeats on termites and the termite service industry germinated. The story traces almost forgotten names: Barney Houghton who became the industry’s first millionaire and his company which was eventually bought by Rentokil; the nine Smith brothers who moved from Tasmania where they’d never seen a termite, into Victoria, SA and WA. Their sister married a Bonney in NSW. These became household names in pest control from the 1920s to the 1960s. Up in Queensland, Jock Wightman shared an office with Bill Flick because “…Jock wasn’t into termites and Bill wasn’t into cockroaches so the arrangement suited both of them.” Jock was the father-in-law of Darcy McCarron, grandfather of John, Marshall and Andrew McCarron who set up Amalgamated Pest Control. The twist in the tale is that about 90 years later (in 2016) Flick Anticimex bought APC and with that merger, people from both companies share office space again.

Termites were such a major problem that Governments became involved in studying them. At first there were no Australian entomologists so Government botanists and zoologists were encouraged to sort out the different species. They also noted differences in feeding and nesting habits and conducted experiments to determine why various treatment methods would or wouldn’t work.

This is the type of microscope the early scientists peered through. Co-author Doug Howick, then one of those government scientists in the field preparing to push over an Amitermes meridianalis mound near Darwin.

Governments had a stake in termite control because termites were eating their property too, so there’s the story of amalgamated fighting all those termites trying to sabotage railway bridges.

The days of reckoning are recorded after the most destructive armed force in the world (from the USA) brought the most destructive dry wood termite in the world (Cryptotermes brevis) to Brisbane during World War II. It surreptitiously spread from Brisbane to Bundaberg and beyond until Rentokil won the contract to fumigate 39 buildings in 1979. The signature red and white fumigation sheets draped over the Queensland Parliament House earned it the title of ‘The Biggest KFC Store in the World’

(Page 139) Oh! To be a termite.

(Page 145) The Queensland Parliament house masquerading as a KFC store in 1979 (Under fumigation by Rentokil).

The more recent developers of physical barriers, Termimesh, Granitgard, Kordon, Termiglass, Term-Seal and others followed Lysaught, (the galvanized ant cap people from around 1900) with products of increased technological sophistication.

Arsenic dust dominated from 1915 until the 1950s when the organochlorines became the chemical choice for the next few decades. Dusts made a comeback when Bayer’s Intrigue and BASF’s Termidor Dust again put some focus on eliminating colonies rather than relying on an insecticidal barrier. Then came baiting. Dow started it, Exterra and others joined in the quest to affect termite colonies by getting workers to transfer IGRs back home. It is just a variation on Bill Flick’s original strategy really.

The book explains how the ‘snake oil’ purveyors of promised termite eradication in the late 1800s morphed into the well trained technicians of today. Those who countless hundreds of thousands of times have been welcomed into houses by distraught homeowners, ushered quickly to scenes of splintered timbers, scattered bodies and destroyed dreams of a happy home… because the homeowner trusted this technician and this company to “…know the termite’s biology and habits, its preferences, the likely best options to eliminate the colony it came from and how to defend the home from attack from other colonies which might be developing nearby.”

Some think history is boring but history keeps happening. Thoughts and actions become stories and most people enjoy stories.

(Page 33) Termite mounds were the base for many tennis courts in rural Australia in the early 1900s and onwards. Termite mounds were soil particles held together by termite saliva and, when crushed and rolled it stayed put. Rod Laver and Evonne Goolagong were just two champions who learned to play on “ant-bed” courts. Photo: The Australian Magazine

This is a comprehensive story of humans in the battle to save wood in their structures from termites. Yes, there are facts and dates. Yes, there are short passages of that ho hum stuff but you’ll stay involved as you connect the dots and see how the past has shaped the present.

Roland Hovey who wrote the Foreword, says he reluctantly agreed to do it… he certainly didn’t want to read ‘another bloody book on termites’ after his previous 45 years of termite warfare. But to write a Foreword, you’re supposed to read the book first. After a few days of procrastination, in the wee small hours of one morning, his wife came out and asked if he was ever coming to bed? He had become so involved in this story that he was taking sides and was even starting to hope the termites would win.

(Page 126) Co-author Ion Staunton with Phil Hadlington OAM who produced the first formal TAFE courses which brought science to commerce in 1956, and John Cheadle who began as a Flickman the same day as Ion in 1957, went on to become the Qld Manager for Rentokil before setting up his family company Arrest-a-Pest

termiteer.com.au

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  • Termites, also known as white ants, are capable of destroying anything containing cellulose which includes paper and wood.
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  • Termite infestation and breeding happens under the ground. This makes it difficult for you to spot them.
  • Termites usually build multiple colonies. So even if you have found one and have managed to eradicate it, there is a good chance they are already busy destroying some other part of your home.

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Alternative Weapons in the War Against Termites : Pests: Battling the little buggers? Companies say they can freeze ’em, toast ’em or roast ’em. But do those methods work? No one knows for sure.

The war against household pests is getting very weird. Exterminators promise to roast termites out of the walls. They freeze them out. They cook them with microwaves. Some shoot them with special guns.

Nobody knows if all this stuff works. Despite numerous inquiries and complaints to state authorities and trade associations over the past few years, these “alternative methods” of killing termites are only now getting any official scientific testing.

Media and consumers have nevertheless welcomed the new techniques. They sound persuasively high-tech. And they’re attractive because of what they’re not–a big, telltale canvas baggie filled with toxic gases enclosing the building.

“It’s a sign of the times,” says Harvey Logan, executive vice president of Sacramento-based Pest Control Operators of California. “You have people who, for real or perceived reasons, don’t want to use a pesticide.”

California is the home of alternative methods because of its particular pests–the indigenous drywood termites–and its commitment to termite control. The state has a long tradition of tenting homes with the attendant inconvenience–the removal of people, pets, plants and all food goods in cupboards, refrigerators and freezers.

Beyond inconvenience, there is some peril in fumigation. “Whole-house fumigations are highly effective and the most dangerous,” says Phil Hutton, product manager in the Environmental Protection Agency’s insecticide/rodenticide branch. Although methyl bromide and Vikane (sulfuryl fluoride) have replaced even more lethal chemicals, there are periodic cases of burglars, homeless people or suicides dying in the tented buildings.

No wonder alternative methods are welcome, stressing what marketers call a “natural” approach.

First came cold. “We Freeze Their Little Buns Off,” says Long Beach-based Tallon Termite & Pest Control, offering its Blizzard System as an alternative to what Tallon calls “the chemical truck.” The Tallon people drill half-inch holes along the wall boards and determine where the termites nest. Then they spray liquid nitrogen into the holes until the temperature inside the walls reaches 20 below zero.

Some termites survive frostbite, so Tallon may put “heat strips” on the wall instead. “Whatever we don’t freeze dry, we stir fry,” says Tallon sales manager Rhonda Bailey. Sometimes Tallon falls back on the chemical truck, “puffing” a boric acid compound into attics and crawl spaces.

Then there’s heat, in several forms of “thermal” extermination, or “thermagation.” Either the whole house or a single area may be heated to 150 degrees and more. Or hot pads–“thermal blankets”–may be applied to the walls where termites live.

As for the microwave method, “we cook ’em,” say the ads for Valencia-based Termite Inspector. The weapon is a “magnetron,” which beams microwaves through the walls. This kills the termites in their lairs, making “the inside hot without scorching the wood,” says company inspector Dan Caballero.

The magnetron is fired at door and window frames, beams, and infestations behind walls. For more open areas, and for residual protection, the company uses a borate solution.

The most Flash Gordon method of all is the Etex Electro-Gun. It looks like a plug-in gun with a long cord, and sends a high-frequency, high-voltage pulse through wood without damaging it. It even signals a kill: When the gun is scanned across a wall and hits a nest of termites, the electrical emission changes in color and arc, and the operator hears some change in the sound.

“The water in the termite attracts the electricity,” says Michael Boutte, service manager for Ecola Services, a company licensed to use the gun. “If the termites survive, it kills the protozoa in the digestive system so they can’t digest cellulose, and they’ll be dead in two to three weeks.”

All of these treatments–heat, cold, microwave, the guns–are considered spot techniques: accurately locating the enemy is therefore critical to the whole maneuver. The search still depends heavily on obvious signs like holes in the wood, peppery sprinkles of termite fecal matter, dirt tunnels and “tubes” that termites build from the ground to wood. “Most of our members will use their eye,” says Logan, of Pest Control Operators. “They’re trained to do inspections, maybe with a probe.”

Some of the new wave exterminators use a device like a stethoscope to hear the chewing behind the walls. There’s also a fiber-optic scope for peering behind walls through holes drilled above the baseboard.

Spot techniques are for local battles, not full-scale war. War means fumigants, to both traditional and alternative exterminators. “If a house is so far gone that there’s tons of evidence (of termites),” says Tallon’s Bailey, “we recommend that somebody fumigate.” Pest Control Operators recommends fumigating, says Logan, if a house has even “three infestations in different areas.”

Even for spot work, the pest-control establishment’s view of alternative methods ranges from negative to agnostic. “With all alternative methods,” says Joel Paul, spokesman for the National Pest Control Assn. in Virginia, “the consumer has to accept the fact that they’re not going to work forever.”

The general public is even less equipped to make a judgment and may be soothed by a sense of government involvement. In California, all termite-inspection reports and notices of work completed must be filed with the state as a matter of public record–not necessarily reviewed, but filed. Termite inspectors, moreover, are state-licensed, as are the pest-control operators for whom most of them work.

What’s more, advertising materials and sales staff often make reassuring references to the EPA. In fact, the EPA does require registration of pest-control chemicals, including Tallon’s liquid nitrogen, and such registration does mean these substances are approved for use as safe and effective.

But the EPA will also “register” any business that produces pest-control products or devices. This so-called “establishment registration” is given just for the asking, and according to one EPA official, “doesn’t guarantee safety or goodness or anything.”

Some government officials are put off by all the P.T. Barnum in the alternatives’ marketing. “They can shake chicken bones at the termites as long as the end effect is that they eradicate the infestation,” says Maureen Sharp, deputy registrar at California’s Structural Pest Control Board in Sacramento. “We do have complaints that alternative methods don’t always work. The company comes back two, three times, and then, when push comes to shove, they’re willing to go out and fumigate.”

What’s still lacking is scientific documentation. “They say ‘I’ve done this in 50 homes and every one resulted in a positive effect,’ ” says Paul. “They don’t have a comparison, a control group and a test group.”

Granted “some of it is common sense,” says Vernard Lewis, UC Berkeley entomologist, whose office gets many calls asking if one or another method is effective. “Of course if you put a termite in a microwave, it’ll die.”

Finally, a termite-control study is under way at Berkeley and UC Riverside, funded by the Pest Control Board with fees collected from the industry. Riverside is doing lab studies of heat and cold treatments and analyzing California’s 1.5 million annual inspection reports. Berkeley is studying microwaves and electro-guns, and constructing a building dubbed “Villa Termiti,” which will be infested with termites and treated with various methods.

The undertaking is not only funded but supported by the industry, including “the ones using chemicals,” says Lewis. The goal isn’t just to decide whether alternative methods work or don’t work, he says.

“It’s to try to make them work, because a lot of people don’t want to use the fumigants.”

www.latimes.com

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