Termite takeover

Tony Robinson with Palmetto Exterminators treats an oak tree on The Citadel campus that is full of Formosan termites.

Grace Beahm

Oak trees on The Citadel campus are infested with termites. But that's not unheard of in the Lowcountry.

May and June mark the height of the active termite season around Charleston, with the tiny insects not shy about what they eat, where they live or how much damage they leave.

"Termites don't know the difference between a pine log and a pine two-by-four," Clemson University entomologist Eric Benson said. "They're just out there eating, trying to keep the colony going."

Two major types of subterranean termites are found in South Carolina, including native species but also the dreaded imported Formosan bug. The Formosans arrived in Charleston in the mid-1950s, hidden in ships' cargo from Asia. That's why areas close to the former Navy base and the port -- including The Citadel and the nearby Wagner Terrace neighborhood -- are prominent targets.

Various recent factors also helped boost the local termite problem, Hurricane Hugo being a main one. After the storm, when downed trees and blown-over wooden structures were taken to landfills, it spread their migration by years.

Another significant shift came in the 1990s when Daniel Island and other areas were developed and families started moving in. The housing boom meant termites expanded beyond their usual food sources of forest debris to include materials found in and around family homes.

"They think houses are just big trees," said Bert Snyder, an entomologist with Palmetto Exterminators, which has partnered with The Citadel to treat the campus' Formosan infestation.

Though all species of termites are considered harmful to structures, Formosans are considered the worst, largely because the numbers in their colonies dwarf the numbers found in most native termite dens.

"Formosans can easily go into the millions," Benson said, while native colonies might be counted in the tens or hundreds of thousands.

What is a more recent issue is the move toward colonizing trees.

The trees under attack at The Citadel are mainly species of oak. The bugs responsible have moved into an undetermined number of trees around the campus, marching through holes and openings which lead to the heart of the tree's insides, taking up residence.

Snyder, who was watching a treatment chemical get shot inside one campus oak near the Ashley River, showed off a close-up of the biggest offender, a queen floating in alcohol taken from a Hilton Head Island condominium. She had the bloated white abdomen capable of laying up to 2,000 eggs a day. "She's basically an egg-laying machine," Snyder said.

Living trees, such as the ones at The Citadel, also are becoming more of a habitat for South Carolina termites. At least 17 different tree species around Charleston are home to Formosans, Clemson reports, often in locations close to human dwellings where they can jump off into vents or other access points.

Benson said the height of the termite swarming dates when colonies move in the Lowcountry runs from Mother's Day to Father's Day.

Benson advised homeowners that when they see termites around their property, not to panic. There are multiple treatments that can be explored, he said, and taking up to two months to do your homework isn't unreasonable. "Don't give into aggressive (policy) sellers," he said. "Take the time and get two or three quotes."

Snyder warned that the spread of termites in the Lowcountry, including taking over local trees and forests, is going to get worse. "It's becoming an epidemic," he said.