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In summer stew, houses are lunch

Termites thrive in heat and humidity. After several dry years, they're back - and hungry.

Published July 12, 2003

[Times photo: Cherie Diez]
Jeremy Curtis, top, and Sam Huffman of Cameron Termite and Pest Control in St. Petersburg tent a Redington Shores house Wednesday that's a replica of Thomas Point Lighthouse in Maryland.

Like sports teams and fine wines, termites have good years and bad.

2003 is turning out to be a banner year for the wood-chomping insects.

After several years of relatively dry weather in Florida, drywood termites are enjoying this summer's downpours and humidity.

Forget candlelight and Barry White - the drywood termites that reproduce, known as alates, need just the right temperature and humidity to inspire them to swarm away from home, seek mates and start new colonies.

Drywood termites are having their best swarming season in several years because of the ideal combination of temperature and humidity, said Phil Koehler, an entomology professor at the University of Florida.

Their close kin, subterranean termites, are also having an active year, though they aren't influenced as much by the weather, so it's tough to say why. Meanwhile, the dreaded Formosan termite, which has wreaked billions of dollars worth of damage in New Orleans, was spotted on Harbour Island for the first time last month.

The booming real estate market may also be turning up more termites, since most homes are inspected for termites before closing.

The combination is keeping exterminators as busy as, well, bees.

"This year's been incredible," said Kim Triplett, president of Cameron Termite and Pest Control in St. Petersburg. "We've been nuts."

Sid Funk, a marketing specialist for Dow AgriSciences, which manufactures a popular gas fumigant for drywood termites, said exterminators are typically booked out three to four weeks during the summer. This year, though, they are booked through August and September.

"All that rain that came in from November on gave us a better termite season than we've had in four to five years," Funk said.

Florida's warm weather and mugginess make the state a termite heaven. Subterranean termites also enjoy the state's loose soil, which makes for easy tunneling.

Koehler, the University of Florida professor, said the state's pest control industry, which also includes cockroaches, fleas, ants and rodents, is worth more than $2-billion a year.

Statewide, termites infest 100,000 homes each year, and property owners spend up to $3-billion for treatment and repair, said Nan-Yao Su, also an entomology professor at the University of Florida.

In the Tampa Bay area in 1995, the latest year for which figures are available, about 94,000 of the 4.5-million structures in the Tampa Bay area were fumigated or spot-treated for termites, said Funk.

Minor infestations of drywood termites can be eliminated with spot treatments. But for serious infestations, exterminators resort to tenting, which involves wrapping a building in tarp and injecting a fumigant. Although treatments for drywood termites kill them on the spot, some treatments for subterranean termites can send them scurrying to neighboring homes.

St. Petersburg City Hall has already been tented this summer. So have the Hillsborough County Courthouse in Tampa and several restaurants in Tampa.

Summer is a popular time to tent because families with children often move during the summer to avoid interrupting the school year. Winter residents like to tent while they're away, and fumigating is cheaper because less fumigant is required when temperatures are higher.

Triplett said her company charges $500 to $700 to tent a typical house. Among her customers this month was Julie Johnson, 30, of Redington Shores.

Earlier this year, Johnson and her husband noticed telltale termite wings on the windowsills (alates shed their wings after swarming) and black and red droppings, about the size of large pieces of sand, on the floor of their home, which is a replica of a Chesapeake-style lighthouse. They tried spot treatments twice, but the termites reappeared.

Wednesday, Johnson, her husband and baby were preparing to vacate the house for several days for the tenting. But Johnson said she doesn't mind the inconvenience.

"That's the price you pay for living on the beach and living in Florida," she said.

- Times researcher Kitty Bennett and staff writer Ron Matus contributed to this report.

[Last modified July 12, 2003, 05:32:22]

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