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The great termite race.


The contest is whether we can move out of this house before the termites eat it down to the foundation. Or to the ground, rather. There is no foundation. And that, the termite people say, is the problem. Because they are unable to get under the house to do their thing, the termites are free to do their thing. And what their thing is you wouldn't believe. Unless the little buggers are eating your house down too, of course. And heaven knows that there are plenty of them to go around.

According to a Spencer Library book I borrowed on the subject, there are 1,800 species of termites worldwide. Although only 55 of these 1,800 have chosen the U.S. of A. in which to do their underhanded work, all 55 are evidently competing in our house to see which species will have the honor of bringing down the last supporting timber.

Nor is the competition only between termites. Wouldn't it be a howl, hard as the little devils are working, if the carpenter bees beat them to it? (Or maybe you wouldn't know a carpenter bee from a hummingbird, both being about equal in size.) Termites prefer old wood for their pig-outs, and carpenter bees get their kicks from boring holes into new wood: more than likely they'll be sharing the thrill of victory.

If the Smithsonian should ever want samples of the carpenter bees' handiwork, I'd be glad to break off a couple of two-by-fours from our brand-new patio overhang.

I was out there admiring it the first morning after its completion, when I thought I'd come down with a bad case of dandruff. But it was a shower of sawdust from a hole in this two-by-four into which a carpenter bee (I thought it was a hummingbird at the time) was about to disappear. Termites at least have the decency to eat your house down out of your sight. Bit these things have no compunction about vandalizing your property right before your eyes.

Now please don't get the idea I have nothing beeter to do than to watch a carpenter been drill a hole the size of its big old body into my brand-new two-by-four. I just wanted to know why. I'd also like to know why it couldn't have exited from the same hole it entered, instead of boring on a couple of feet and coming out a new hole.

We now have separate entrances and exists in at least half the two-by-fours supporting the overhang. How long the two-by-fours will be supporting the overhang is anyone's guess. I'm guessing that the termites will bring the whole house down before this happens. My money would be on the bees if they'd only stick to business. But lately they've been goofing off by drilling holes into our love seat on the patio. This doesn't bother me a whole lot because we weren't using the thing all that much.

As you might know, my dear wife has offered her solution to the carpenter bee problem. "Why don't you capture the entire flock," she suggested, "and train them to make cribbage boards?"

Dwelling on this the next morning, I cut my nose while shaving.

As for the mice, they have evidently pulled out of the race. They were better at relocating things than in gnawing the house down anyway. Their specialty was in relocating food from the dog's dish. There's nothing quite like hurrying to get ready for church and finding the toes of yours Sunday shoes packed with Alpo beef-flavored chunks.

Finally taking the hint that I wasn't too crazy about ramming my feet into dog food, and that my wife was fed up with finding their convenient caches in her cabinet drawers, the mice took up residence under the hood of my car. I probably wouldn't have known they'd made a nest there if the furry little devils hadn't constructed it from the covering of the wires leading from somewhere under the instrument panel to somewhere in the motor, causing me to be towed in. For a total of $25 ready cash. Which wasn't all that ready.

So now we have another hot contest toing on at our place. Will the mice have the car chewed up before the bees and the termites bring the house down? I'm thinking of impeding the mice's chances by taping a box of d-Con to the engine block. My dear wife says that then, when I stop at a full-service pump for gas, I can say to the attendant, "The oil and radiator are O.K., but would you mind checking the d-Con?" She gets off one of these extremely funny lines about once a year. which is often enough.

Getting back to the house, there's another dandy race on between the termites and our woodchuck. The woodchuck crawls under the house at noon (we could set our clocks by it) and until 1:30 gnaws on the timbers to get at the termites. what makes the situation so exciting is the prospect he will ingest all the termites before they succeed in sending us through the floor into the root cellar.

Considering the woodchuck's unfailing schedule, I'd say he stands a good chance of emerging victorious. In which case he will have chewed through all the timbers and we'll be ending up in the root cellar anyway. So it doesn't matter a heck of a lot to us which way the contest comes out.

Odds, however, from what I read, favor the termites. Did you know that these little housewreckers are born with full sets of teeth, uppers and lowers, molars and all? And we are not talking about baby teeth. These sets of ivories are good for a lifetime.

According to the termite book, the queen of the colony, who must assume at least half the blame for the mess (one queen was timed at the incredible egg-laying rate of one every two seconds), has a life span of 15 years. (If you want to figure one egg every two seconds times 15 years, go ahead; I have more to do.) workers and soldiers in their society, fortunately, are sterile. Otherwise our house would have been flattened long before this.

If these prolific pests only had to take time to chew their food, this old house might hang on until we could shove it off on one of our kids. But termites use their teeth only for ripping the wood apart. It seems that God, perhaps on His day off, blessed the rascals with a foregut, a midgut, and a hindgut. Something on the order of a cow, only smaller. Wood is passed along to this hindgut, which is stocked with protozoa designed especially for digesting. It remains for someone smarter than I am (there must be someone) to come up with a wood treatment that will nullify these protozoa and leave the termite with a bellyful of splinters and a total lack of appetite.

"But how do you know you've got termites?" I've been asked, mostly by relatives living in apartments.

I could invite them to be here on the first hot day of spring to watch the imps swarm.

On the other hand, not being wild about having guests hanging around, I could take them to where our 40-by-20 tool shed is now on the ground, and it's flatter than Dr. Pepper on a platter. Or I could invite them to stop at the barn and crumble a supporting timber in their hands.

On the way back to the house I could pull a fencepost out of the ground using only my thumb and pinkie. And inside the house i could show them where to step on our bedroom floor--unless they didn't mind the inconvenience of climbing out of the root cellar.

"Why don't you get ird of the pests?" is another dumb question we keep hearing. "Aren't there people who make this their life's work?"

Yes, there are termite exterminators. And we are on a first-name basis with most of them within a four-county radius. but they all agree that unless they first excavate to get under the house, they would hate to take my money. But one termite exterminator said he would take $1,200 of my money to do the digging, plus another $300 to finally send the termites packing.

Instead, I drove to Spencer and paid $32 for a quart of stuff to mix with water guaranteed to knock their socks off. The termites loved it. I've never seen a healthier swarm than we had this year.

Besides the exterminator and the woodchuck, the termite's natural enemies, my book says, are the leopard toad, the scaly anteater, the goatsucker, and the bat. Take your pick. As for me, I'll take a termite over a goatsucker any time.

In addition to devouring wood, termites also dine on soft plastic used for insulating electric wiring on flexible water pipes. Among their hors d'oeuvre the straw in adobe bricks is highly rated. They've also been known to sink their full set of teeth into the lead covering of underground telephone cables. And now the Wall Street Journal has run a story under the headline "Terror of the Concrete-Craving Termites." And there goes our patio.

The whole scenario has left me emulating the soldier termites, whose duty is to defend the colony against intruders, in particular predatory ants. To alarm the colony, they begin beating their little heads against the ground.

However, due to a touch of arthritis, I am restricted to beating my head against the side of the house. But gently, lest I bring it down and end the race for good.
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Author:Stoddard, Maynard Good
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Nov 1, 1989
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