Florida working group takes a big bite out of conehead termites

An invasive termite in southeastern Florida is losing its grip on the area, thanks to successful eradication efforts by a multi-agency working group.

Sue Alspach, an environmental specialist with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS), used funding from a Southern Integrated Pest Management Center IPM Enhancement grant to gather experts from many agencies in Florida to form a working group to deal with the pest.

Native to the Caribbean and Central and South America, the conehead termite was discovered in 2001 in Dania Beach, Florida. Eradication efforts began in 2003 and seemed successful, but in 2011 colonies began to appear again. Since 2012, 90 properties in two cities in Broward County, Florida, have been infested with conehead termites—77 in Dania Beach and 13 in Pompano Beach.

Conehead soldiers. Copyright: B.L. Thorne

Unlike subterranean termites, which live predominantly underground, the conehead termite—named for the soldier’s cone-shaped head—builds its nests and tunnels above ground. Although that may make them easier to spot than subterranean termites, conehead nests often are intermixed with brush or debris. In abandoned sites that are overgrown, colonies can thrive and multiply quickly, with the aid of multiple kings and queens in each nest.

“It really is a fascinating creature,” says Alspach. “It has only one goal: to procreate and protect the colony.”

The termite is quick to adapt to change, says Alspach, as they found that behavior differed from one colony to another.

With state funding being limited, Alspach turned to the Southern IPM Center IPM Enhancement Grant to apply for working group funding. With additional help from agencies from around Florida, she reasoned, eradicating the termite might be possible.

Her $9,910 grant gave her more than she bargained for.

“Everyone I contacted was interested and willing to help in any way they could,” she said.

Conehead tunnels on tree.

Although FDACS was addressing the two known areas of infestation—the ones in Dania Beach and Pompano Beach— they had not yet pursued possible infestations in natural areas such as forests due to staffing limitations. If coneheads settled in any of the national parks, they would have a nightmare on their hands, Alspach said.

As she began assembling her working group, natural resource managers were one of the first on her list.

Alspach held two meetings for the working group, which consisted of professionals in agriculture, pest control, natural resource management and local agencies. Before the first meeting, 6o percent of group members indicated their knowledge of conehead termites was fair to non-existent.

The first meeting brought together many people who were unfamiliar with the termite but excited to be involved. Alspach said that the energy in the room was palpable. Her supervisors were amazed at the number of people who wanted to help.

Conehead termite nest

The second meeting included a field trip to an infested property in Pompano Beach. While there, Dr. Barbara Thorne, an entomologist and expert on the termite from the University of Maryland, who serves as FDACS’s science advisor, explained the pest’s biology and IPM techniques that could be used against the insect.

After the meetings, everyone knew what they were and what they were capable of.

Many beneficial outcomes resulted from the meetings. The natural resource managers that Alspach invited to the group invited her to give presentations to their staff. The Everglades Cooperative Invasive Species managers sent out news about the termite and the Broward County Parks and Recreation Department trained field staff on locating and identifying the pest. The communications coordinator for the City of Dania Beach brought her knowledge back to her agency. City officials responded by spending over $5,000 to clean up an infested property in Dania Beach.

Dania Beach property before cleanup…

In March 2015, two years before the working group formed, FDACS discovered the heavily infested Dania Beach property – 26 nests were scattered around the 2/3-acre vacant, overgrown lot, and termites had spread to the landscaping around 11 adjacent homes. FDACS performed two treatments on the property but the heavy overgrowth inhibited staff’s ability to perform a thorough survey and confirm the efficacy of those treatments. At the time the working group met in November, the status of the property remained unclear. To assist in the eradication of coneheads from their city, Dania Beach government hired their landscape contractor to mow, weed whack, and chip tree debris on the ground thereby reducing food sources, hiding places, and making it possible to thoroughly survey the property.

On February 6 and 7, 2018, during the second working group meeting and the day after, the group filmed a video of the final clean-up of Dania Beach. The video is available on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CXFoKcWtkfQ .

“The clean-up of properties is essential to finding and treating the termite,” says Alspach. “You may treat one nest, but if there is nearby debris, the termites will just go next door. Site clean-ups are highly important to the eradication of the conehead termite.”

…And after cleanup

Out of the 90 properties in Broward County that have had coneheads on them at some point in the past, only one is still infested – a 3.4-acre undeveloped property in Pompano Beach.  Currently there are no known active properties in Dania Beach. Surveys on those properties must continue, though, to monitor for young, emerging colonies that can remain hidden for several years.

The collaboration on conehead eradication earned her another bonus—a $173,000 agreement from USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Alspach plans to use some of that money to locate possible conehead colonies that haven’t yet been discovered. The Southern IPM Center grant, however, gave her the tools and people she needed to get that job done.

“The IPM Center grant significantly improved our program,” says Alspach. “Our lives have changed so much because of having all of these agencies on board. Now I have people to turn to and names to call if I need something.”

NOTE: Except for the photo of the termite soldiers, all photos are credited to Sue Alspach and Katherine Tenn of FDACS.

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