Construction’s Age-old Bugaboo: The Termite

February 23, 2007

U.S. beverage bottler Snapple is known for the bits of trivia it prints inside the screw-on caps to its glass bottles. Snapple’s “Real Fact” #16: “The world’s termites outweigh the world’s humans 10 to 1.”

Amusing party talk, perhaps, but there’s nothing fun about an infestation of termites.

Look up fumigadoras in the new Yellow Pages that just came out last month. You’ll find a solid five pages of listings for fumigators and exterminators, many with big, splashy ads.

Undoubtedly, there is a problem in Costa Rica with what Wálter Yung of Fumitecnia (222-3233) calls “the cancer that eats wood.”

How to tell if you have a problem? You won’t necessarily see the termites themselves, suggests Federico Paniagua, assistant director of the University of Costa Rica’s InsectMuseum.

“You will see evidence of their presence,” he adds.

Discarded wings and threads of wood (especially around windowsills and light fixtures), and telltale pinholes in wooden beams are classic signs of a problem, and indicate that action is necessary.

Home remedies essentially don’t exist, Yung says. None of the do-it-yourself home products available at the supermarket combats termites. (They are designed more for ants and cockroaches.)

Newer generations of termite-eradication methods are beginning to replace older fumigants in Costa Rica. The Ministry of Health governs pesticide use in Costa Rica, though many fumigators go beyond the ministry’s requirements and proudly announce in their ads that their products meet the standards of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, too, boasting of their non-staining, odor-free, biodegradable and non-toxic properties.

Vikane, a synthetic gas fumigant manufactured by Dow since the 1950s, is widely used in Costa Rica. Still regarded as the gold standard in termite eradication, it nevertheless has caused concerns about toxicity in recent years.

Pyrethrin is regarded as a far safer, nonsynthetic anti-termite insecticide. It is derived from pyrethrum, a species of chrysanthemum specifically cultivated to produce pyrethrin.

New to Costa Rica is what amounts to an electrolysis method now used by Mego Ecologista (232-7849, mego_ecologista@hotmail.com).

“It’s not true that wood doesn’t conduct electricity,” says the company’s Michael González, who likens the process employing 210 volts of current to using a Taser gun. An entire medium-size house can be done for about $600, with a three-year guarantee.

Brand new to the market here, scheduled for release this month, is an environmentally friendly pesticide whose active ingredient is a species of fungus in powder form. It destroys termites’ exoskeletons, but does not harm humans or the environment. The product was developed for use by biologist Gavriele Murillo of Bio DCM (872-9650, www.biodcm.com) following extensive use in San José’s historic National Theater (TT, July 7, 2006), and encompasses an integrated system of ultrasound detection, application and maintenance.

An Ounce of Prevention…

The old adage about an ounce of prevention and a pound of cure applies to termite control, too.

The type of wood used in construction of a home or furniture plays a big role, Yung says, with the classic tropical hardwoods, such as mahogany, roble and guayacán, as well as oak, far more resistant to termite infestation.

Softer, less expensive woods such as plywood or pine are especially susceptible to problems.

“People like the rustic, tropical look of bamboo,” Yung says. “But watch out. Those woods are like cookies to termites.” Such woods should be treated, with a guarantee from the builder or furniture maker that this step has been performed.

Paints and sealants help keep termites out, as do periodic boric acid treatments.

Preventive treatment, which Yung recommends be done twice a year in tropical climes, should run about $50, a far more reasonable cost than an after-the-fact eradication, which can cost hundreds of dollars or more.

Keeping wood away from contact with soil helps prevent problems. Yung says that soils in traditional coffee-growing regions of Costa Rica, especially in the western Central Valley, have been especially prone to problems with subterranean termites. Escazú and Santa Ana, west of San José, in particular have experienced problems.

Good concrete foundations, picking up wood lying on the ground, planting trees far from the house and pruning branches that hang close to the house all eliminate the yard to-house bridge so sought after by termites.

 

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