About a month ago, a janitor and a trustee at Bethel United Methodist Church climbed into the church's attic to lower the grand chandelier for cleaning. While there, they saw something that really bugged them.
The trustee saw tell-tale signs of termites, and later explorations by the church's structural engineer confirmed a significant infestation.
And the termites appear to be Formosans, the worst kind.
While Charleston has eight species of termites, only Formosan colonies swell to millions of members. Only Formosans can devour a big chunk of building in a matter of months.
Out of caution, Bethel has closed the doors to its 1852 Greek Revival church at the intersection of Pitt and Calhoun streets until it has answers about how much damage has been done to its roof trusses and what must be done to fix them.
The congregation worshipped Sunday in the fellowship hall, and about seven upcoming weddings already have been moved to other churches and venues.
"We are just in the initial stage of discussion and finding the extent of the damage," said the Rev. John Hipp, "and we're praying for the best."
Termites are nothing new in the Lowcountry, but Formosans, more numerous than other species, heightened the problem when they arrived here in the mid 20th century.
Hundreds of homes, particularly north and south of Charleston's Hampton Park, have felt their bite.
"There are fairly significant infestations of Formosans all over Charleston," said Cam Lay, assistant department head of Clemson University's Department of Pesticide Regulation. "There's really no place in Charleston where I would be surprised to find them."
Swarms of Formosan termites even have forced the cancellation of minor league baseball games in the old College Park stadium. Their sheer numbers made it tough to see — even to breathe.
Still, the Bethel infestation could prove to be one of the city's most high profile and costly infestations in recent years.
Hipp said the church may reopen soon or remain closed for many more months, depending on the answers to these questions: What must be done to eliminate the infestation? How much damage has been done? Can there be a temporary fix to stabilize the roof? What kind of work and money will be needed to fix it?
"I hear something different every day," Hipp said.
There are some steps people can take to prevent problems because most homeowners' policies do not cover termite infestation or damage. Lay said homeowners should keep their gutters clear so they don't store water, and they should avoid storing firewood next to their homes. They also should have their houses under contract with a pest control company that inspects for the presence of termites at least once a year.
"I don't want to portray this as some unstoppable menace from space, but they do damage at a very significant rate," Lay said.
Nationwide, hundreds of thousands of houses suffer termite damage that costs about $5 billion a year, according to the National Pest Management Association.
As Bethel knows, houses of worship are not exempt. Its front doors, the ones just past the six imposing Doric columns, currently have signs reading, "Due to construction church services will be held in the fellowship hall."
-- In 1958, Charleston had the first confirmed infestation of Formosan termites in the United States. Ships returning from Korea are thought to have brought the termites to the former Navy base.
-- Formosans can fell a house in 10 months.
-- A colony consumes at least six times as much wood in a month as do native Eastern subterranean termites.
-- A colony averages 2-4 million termites, while the average Eastern subterranean colony numbers at most 200,000.
-- A colony of 4 million can eat 110 to 180 feet of 2x4s in a year.
-- Formosans swarm by the tens of thousands at dusk and at night; Eastern subterranean swarms number a few hundred during the day.
-- Minor league baseball games at College Park have been called off because dense swarms led to zero visibility and breathing problems.
-- The foreigners penetrated twice as far into treated material before dying as did Eastern subterranean in U.S. Department of Agriculture tests.
-- A Formosan queen can lay 1,000 eggs a day and live 25 years.
-- Formosans can attack at least 16 different species of South Carolina trees, including Southern magnolia, live oak, water oak, willow oak, elm, hackberry and black cherry.
-- About 10 percent of a colony is soldiers (2 percent for Eastern subs), so aggressive that they will attack a human finger with what look like pinchers on their heads. Formosans also spew a milky substance from their heads as a defense.
-- Winter cold here slows Formosans only slightly, while Eastern subterranean become relatively inactive.
-- Formosan termites may build mud tubes, travel routes made of dirt and saliva, on the inside walls of a house. The tubes may be the size of a pencil.
Protect your home
To have a termite identified, take a sample to the Clemson Extension Service office, 259 Meeting St., Charleston.
Finding a pest control company
The Clemson University Department of Pesticide Regulation suggests the following for anyone choosing a pest control company:
-- Call the department (864-646-2120) to learn whether a company has a history of violations or visit the online enforcement history database at regfocus.clemson.edu/dpr/greenbook.htm.
-- Get several bids from different pest control companies. Bids are usually free.
-- Ask friends and neighbors to recommend a company.
-- Get a termite contract. Contracts are usually written for five to 10 years, and the most useful cover damage, namely treatment and repair.
-- Trust your instincts. If a pest control company doesn't treat your concerns with courtesy and professionalism, it may be time to find another company.