For termites, a scorched earth policy

by Brian Clarey

I’m currently experiencing the late-stage throes of a homeowner’s nightmare, the time when raw panic has abated but uncertainty and vague fear remain.

A few weeks back we started noticing thin, winged black bugs creeping along the kitchen tile. We eliminated them mercilessly by newspaper and by foot, yet they continued their advances.

A few days later they began to swarm on the wall behind the couch. We knew what it meant: termites, lots of them, coldly gnawing their way through our single biggest investment. We sucked the swarmers up through the vacuum hose. Then we declared war.

I’ve dealt with these little buggers before. I encountered the enemy in my first apartment on Cherokee Street in New Orleans. It was a Saturday morning and my roommate and I, both fairly coddled 19-year-olds, nursed beery hangovers on our filthy couches when one of us, I forget who, noticed the swarm on the wall above the fireplace. We started screaming ‘— both thin-blooded Yankees, we had never seen anything like this before. We ran barefoot from the house to the hardware store on Maple Street and purchased an arsenal of bug bombs and aerosol toxins. We were young and didn’t know that these weapons were completely inadequate against this determined and unconventional enemy.

The brown Formosan termites of New Orleans, a prehistoric species that live solely on wood and water, had infiltrated that city to such a degree that it was not uncommon to see rows of houses tented off under huge canvas tarps to quarantine and eventually eliminate whole societies in a protracted battle using poisons strong enough to kill pets. In my time as a French Quarter resident we had all but ceded the war to the worst infestation of the pests in the entire nation. My own Burgundy Street apartment seethed with swarming insects every spring ‘— that’s where I first employed the vacuum as a weapon ‘— and all summer long they would perish by the billions in that district’s gaslights and streetlamps.

In North Carolina, in my neighborhood, we are pursued by subterranean termites, a more evolved species with slim black bodies and long, translucent wings. While their destructive and reproductive powers come in a close second to their Louisiana cousins, they are capable of burrowing into the earth and invading a structure from within, regurgitating networks of mud tunnels in the open spaces behind the walls.

And they are notoriously difficult to roust once they have taken hold.

After the swarm by the couch my wife and I quickly realized that the vicious little drones had established colonies by the back door and in two corners of the garage. We were outnumbered and outgunned and the threat was escalating. They could quickly expand to a load-bearing wall or even get into the attic, the prospect of which even now makes me shudder.

We began to envision our house turning to sawdust around us like in a Woody Woodpecker cartoon. It was time to call in the big guns.

Over the years, and especially when I was a single man and lived under more relaxed standards of cleanliness, I’ve defeated the attempts of many breeds of critter to share my living space. I’ve effectively neutralized families of mice, platoons of palmetto bugs, legions of single-minded ants and a solitary brown lizard that briefly lived in my bedroom. In ’93 I successfully rid a two-story house of fleas. Pretty much. But the ones who survived were utterly dispirited.

Termites on the other hand’… I can’t work with termites. I don’t have the knowledge. I don’t have the tools. I don’t have the stomach for it.

To fight these guys you’ve got to get down to their level.

Subterranean termites are sneaky. They do their work underground in barely detectable tunnels until they randomly hit paydirt and stumble upon a house. By the time they make themselves known the structure will already have been compromised, probably has been for months.

In a sense they are the perfect enemy. They are one of the few species on earth able to metabolize cellulose, basically cell walls (in their defense, it’s been estimated that if there were no such thing as termites the entire landmass of the planet would be covered in a three-story layer of rotting timber). They can molt several times in their lifespan, metamorphosing from worker to soldier as needed by the hive. And when a winged alate becomes a queen her capacity for reproduction increases exponentially with each passing day.

The war against them cannot be fought as a series of battles but must be waged on several fronts without mercy or regret ‘— holes drilled deep into the home’s foundation; a secure perimeter with baited traps at tight intervals; a comprehensive eradication of their structures and pathways and a complete and utter disruption of their entire way of life.

The entire civilization must be eliminated. For the greater good.

To comment on this column, e-mail Brian at