Friday, April 6, 2001


UH pair plots demise
of ravenous termites

By Helen Altonn

Two University of Hawaii scientists are digging into secrets of the dreaded wood-eating termite to try to stop its costly destruction of homes.

Entomologists J. Kenneth Grace and Claudia Husseneder were among scientists discussing findings about the Formosan subterranean termite during a two-day symposium at the American Chemical Society's recent national meeting in San Diego.

An enormous economic problem, subterranean termites cause more than $1 billion in damage annually in the United States. Damage in Hawaii alone is about $100 million annually, the entomologists reported.

Yet, little is known about the feeding and nesting habits of the termite, which also wreaks havoc in New Orleans and San Diego.

Grace, studying organisms that live inside the home-wrecking termites, reported that relationships with protozoa, bacteria and fungi are still mysterious and controversial.

He said further understanding of these relationships, with respect to wood degradation, and also of termite physiology and biology, could lead to more effective control methods.

Some termite baits developed in the past 10 years are grounded in insect physiology and biology and pose little harm to other organisms or the environment, he said.

Husseneder is using molecular genetic techniques to analyze various species of termites, with emphasis on the Formosan subterranean termite.

This method still is in its early days, and few are working in that area, she said.

However, she said, by combining different molecular markers, "we can address questions over a wide range of genetic variability," such as tracking sources of introduction worldwide and investigating social organizations of colonies.

She said regulations need to be implemented to prevent the spread of termites.

Remedial control techniques, such as baiting systems, also must be improved to penetrate and eliminate existing colonies, she said.

Husseneder said that because researchers cannot directly study the social habits and biology of the underground termites, information must be inferred from the molecular genetic structure.

"We use a combination of highly informative molecular genetic techniques to provide much-needed information on invasion biology, population structure and colony organization of the Formosan subterranean termite."

The symposium also covered new approaches to stop shipworms -- known as termites of the sea -- from destroying wooden structures in harbors throughout the world.

New ideas for developing safer wood preservatives, limited up to now by environmental disposal concerns, also were discussed by researchers.

Ka Leo O Hawaii
University of Hawaii

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