Termites will win test of time against UT buildings, paper and trees

Bobby Blanchard

UT assistant landscaping manager Janet McCreless said she learned there are two types of buildings in Texas: those with termites and those that will get termites.

The University of Texas is a sprawling campus with more than 150 buildings and structures, set in the middle of Texas. Mike Matthews, spokesperson for Austin pest control company Bug Master, said termites thrive in Texas’s wet and warm environment, which typically translates to temperatures in the 70s. Termites infect buildings by coming up through the soil, where they feed upon dead plant material like wood or paper.

McCreless said multiple departments on campus deal with termites, so the cost to treat and fix damages varies greatly and is evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Because of that, McCreless said it would be difficult to determine just how much termite infestations cost UT annually in terms of treatment and repairs. Treatment and repairs are handled separately and by different companies. She said whatever the number is, it would be large.

Bug Master inspects the Tower’s bait stations, which are sites used to attract and detect termites. Bug Master also provides treatment options should the company find termites, and UT pays $2,400 a year for Bug Master’s services.

While termites can affect buildings year-round if the weather is right, McCreless said the University is usually swarmed in the spring. She said UT normally has two to three swarms a year.

“If you have an infestation, and I’m talking as a homeowner, then that is probably one of the most expensive and worst issues you can deal with,” McCreless said. “It’s far worse than almost any other pest control problem.”

Kiersten Legg, UT pest control technician, said facilities have to inspect buildings regularly to check for termites.

“A lot of time when they swarm you just know where they’re at,” Legge said. “You can see them. They look like a flying ant.”

McCreless said pest control methods have changed in recent years, and treatment previously meant spraying chemicals that would kill everything. Environmental concerns have stopped use of these types of chemicals, and policies now require much tamer substances.

“We have to learn more and more about their biology, where back in the old days we used broad spectrum chemicals that killed everything and kept them away for a longer period,” McCreless said. “We can’t use those chemicals anymore, so you really have to be a scientist to know how to treat, how to detect and how to stop them.”

McCreless said the University normally only deals with subterranean termites, which live in soil and create mud tubes to climb to the surface. There have been reports of a new species of termite appearing in Austin called the Formosan termite, which normally makes its habitat farther south, in areas like Houston.

“They can take down entire trees in very short periods, while our standard subterranean termites take a much longer time to decay,” McCreless said.

In addition, Formosan termites can move through the air and through the soil, making them more troublesome since they can reach buildings easier. Legge said there have not been any signs of the Formosan termites appearing on campus.

But termites do not always threaten the buildings themselves. Legge said there was an instance recently when they found termites eating away at paper documents. Sometimes termites go after trees, but McCreless said facilities do not always treat those cases.

“It really just depends. There are trees in different stages of life. If it is a majestic, beautiful tree, we would probably treat,” McCreless said. “If it’s an old, decrepit tree, we probably wouldn’t.”

After all, McCreless said, termites are a natural part of the environment and are sometimes a beneficial pest.

“They are beneficial in the natural ecology because they decay, they aid in the decomposition of fallen trees,” McCreless said. “But in the urban environment, they are not so good because they eat the structures that we build to live in.”