DAVIE, Fla. – Termites have been around since the days of the dinosaur and are certainly not uncommon in sub-tropical South Florida. Among this army of so-called "silent destroyers" is a new invasive species, the Asian subterranean termite.
"We are at risk of losing our houses. If you let it go, it can literally take a house down," said Dr. Thomas Chouvenc, an entomologist with the University of Florida's Research and Education Center in Davie.
Initially from Southeast Asia, the species is now thriving in the tri-county area.
"We've had termite problems forever, but this is a new type of pressure. This is a new type of damage and this is a new beast on its own," Chouvenc said.
"This termite has the potential to cause more damage than pretty much any other wood-destroying organism we have," pest control expert Mike Willson added.
Like so many other invasive species, the Asian subterranean termite infiltrated South Florida by slipping onto yachts and container ships, hiding in personal belongings and cargo.
"It's impossible to screen every single box and pallet, so sometimes something gets through," Chouvenc said.
Once a male and female mate, the colonies grow in size quickly.
"Within basically five to six years, it's well over a million termites in a colony," Chouvenc said.
And the Asian subterranean termite is a formidable foe.
"This specific species is the first one that we've actually observed has the potential to kill a living tree. All the other termites will infest a living tree, but they usually eat the dead wood off the tree and cause the tree itself no damage. This termite here is different," Willson said.
Chouvenc and his colleagues are looking at the biology of the Asian subterranean termite to uncover its weaknesses.
Scientists have developed a bait that can be carried from one insect to another, wiping out an entire colony within a few months.
"It doesn't kill them right away and this is why it works, because it's slow enough to reach every single termite," Chouvenc said.
But experts say even this powerful weapon won't wipe out this aggressive invader.
"This is a new norm for South Florida," Chouvenc said. "We have to hope we can at least get it under control."
The Asian subterranean termite has been found from Key West all the way up to Riviera Beach and continues to spread, causing environmental damage along the way.
Scientists say 50 percent of native pine in Fort Lauderdale alone are currently infested with the termites, which has the potential to permanently alter South Florida's tree canopy.