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Termites are nothing new for Janesville residents

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Catherine W. Idzerda
April 16, 2011
Now playing! The Beasts That Ate Janesville!
Watch as a brave scientist races against time to discover the biological mechanism to stop the swarm of insects bent on destruction!
Will the very beasts she’s studying devour her lab?
Can Phil—mild mannered entomologist and the film’s love interest—spread the word before it’s too late?

It doesn’t matter, because it’s unlikely anyone will make an action thriller featuring Janesville’s termite problem.


First, because termite destruction sometimes goes unnoticed for years.


Second, because Phil Pellitteri, UW Extension insect diagnostician, already has a love interest—he’s been happily married for years.


Besides, termites are old news in Janesville.


“They predate me,” said Pellitteri, who has been at UW-Madison for 33 years.


John Whitcomb, city operations director, knows about termites, too.


“We’ve been talking about this for a while,” Whitcomb said.


Here’s the new news: “When I first came here, I could count the number of communities with infestations on one hand,” Pellitteri said. “Now I’d need both hands, all my toes—probably even more than that.”


Great. The state’s leading insect diagnostician now needs more appendages to count bug breakouts.


Traveling pests

Colonies of termites have been detected around Janesville’s landfill, leading people to place the blame on scrap lumber. Colonies have appeared in other areas in the city, Pellitteri said, but he didn’t have specifics.


UW-Madison graduate student Rachel Arango, who is studying the state’s termite population, has used a Wisconsin railroad map to display the termite hot spots. Railroad ties, which often are used in landscaping and as retaining walls, are the main suspects in the spread of termites to northern climes.


“I think in Janesville there was an old rock quarry,” Pellitteri said. “They had mules pulling the rocks out in carts on railroad ties.”


He knows of several outbreaks connected to railroad ties.


In Endeavor, researchers talked to a variety of sources before finding an “old timer” who remembered a neighbor who had a backyard full of rail ties. No one knows with absolutely certainty how each of the state’s termite colonies got started, but the bugs have learned to adapt.


“In the winter, they just go below the frost line,” Arango said. “They also use heated structures.”


Thank you, centralized heating.


“In Wisconsin, termites don’t form the wings needed to fly off and form a new colony,” Arango said.


Usually, a “true queen” emerges from a termite swarm and flies away to establish a new colony.


“The colonies around here are like giant amoebas,” Pellitteri said.


This giant blob of termites moves very slowly and can take years to spread.


Fighting back

Traditional treatment for termites involves injecting insecticides into the soil around the house and under the foundation, Pellitteri said.


Arango worked with a group of researchers battling the Endeavor outbreak with baiting and dusting. Termites share food with their nest mates by regurgitation and the poisoned bait passes through the colony, she said.


Dusting involves pulling out termites, dusting them with a poison and returning them to their nest.


“Termites groom each other, and the dust is passed on that way,” Arango said.


For the past two seasons, the area has been termite free. Arango is doing her research at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Product Lab, home of leading termite researcher and Professor Emeritus Glenn Esenther.


“He’s been studying termites since the 1960s,” Arango said. “He’s the one who did the baiting in the congressional buildings in Washington, D.C.”


For local residents, prevention is the first line of defense.


“Don’t have wood from your home in contact with the soil,” Pellitteri said.


Siding shouldn’t touch the ground. Often, homes are built with a strip of concrete at their base to prevent this from happening. Don’t cover the concrete with insulation board. Termites will crawl up between the insulation and the concrete or into the siding and do serious damage. The concrete strip allows homeowners to spot the first sign of termites: mud tubes running up the wall and into the siding.


Science to the rescue

Arango is studying the way termites control the fungi that attack them. By understanding that mechanism, it might be possible to control the creatures.


At the end of the movie—if a movie ever is made—Arango finds the mechanism just in time and rides off into the sunset with the lumber industry specialist of her dreams.


The mild mannered Pellitteri continues his work at UW Extension, fielding calls from reporters and homeowners, happy in the knowledge that he will never again need additional appendages to count termite infestations.


Identifying termites

UW Extension gets a number of calls about termites. Often winged ants are mistaken for termites and panic ensues.


Phil Pellitteri, UW Extension insect diagnostician, provided this description:


Worker termites look like small cream-colored ants. They don’t have the pinched waist of an ant, and their antennae are straight and not bent or “elbowed” as they are in ants.


Worker termites are found only if the mud tubes on the side of a home are broken or if infested wood is opened up.


The winged termites are dark brown to black and have long clear wings. They are most active from March to early June.



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