UK HomeAcademicsAthleticsMedical CenterResearchSite IndexSearch UK


Trench Warfare

by David Wheeler

Mike Potter's new method of termite control is groundbreaking—in both senses of the word. His method involves digging up the ground around the perimeter of a termite-infested building. And his method is revolutionizing the termite-control industry.

Potter, former national technical director for Orkin and now a UK entomologist, works with homeowners, the pest-control and food-processing industries, and just about anybody else with a bug problem.

Photo of dyed termitesThe pest-control industry is still relying on intrusive and expensive means to rid buildings of termites. Even after experts drill into walls and apply pesticides indoors, some customers are plagued by re-infestations months or years later.

But all that is beginning to change. A few years ago, new products were invented that are undetectable to termites and effectively lethal. Potter wondered if these liquid termiticides could work when applied primarily on the outside of a termite-infested building.

"My thoughts were: one, the termites can't detect it," he says. "Two, it transfers from termite to termite. Three, termites on the inside of buildings are usually connected to termites on the outside. They will continue to forage back and forth through the outside-treated soil. It would make sense that we could apply these products mainly around the exterior and solve the termite problem."

Potter calls the new approach to fighting termites "trench warfare," referring to the continuous four-inch trench dug around a termite-infested building. He began testing the concept in 1999.

The initial site was a tobacco barn in Paris, Kentucky. Potter and his colleagues created monitoring stations: plastic containers with the bottoms cut out that enclosed pieces of wood in the ground. Other stations, provisioned with cardboard, were mounted on termite-infested interior walls. Next, Potter's crew dug a shallow trench around the outside of the building and treated the soil with one of the new termiticides. The results were dramatic.

"Within a few months, all of the monitoring stations, including those on the interior, became inactive," Potter says. "When we opened up the stations, we found huge piles of dead termites as far as 15 feet inside the building. It was remarkable, because products in the past never had this kind of effect."

Since Potter has started sharing his research with the termite-control industry, thousands of houses in Kentucky and throughout the United States have been treated using the trench-warfare method—with equally impressive results. "This affirms that the minimally invasive method works in the real world and will be a great benefit to homeowners," Potter says.

Despite their enormous reputation as structural pests, much is still unknown about the organization and movements of subterranean termite colonies. "These are challenging creatures to study—you can't just lift the ground and observe their workings," says Potter. Which is where some "to-dye-for" research comes in.

"One method we termitologists use to trace termites' movements is called 'mark-recapture.' We add dyed paper to one of our monitoring stations. As termites eat the paper they ingest the dye, which colorizes their bodies [see photo above]." By noting in which traps dyed termites reappear, researchers can track the movements of termites underground.