French Quarter Feeding Frenzy

Something utterly alien hides deep within the French Quarter of New Orleans. And it has so unnerved the locals that, rather like the vampires reputed to haunt these streets, they zig-zag to avoid streetlamps, lest the menace drawn by the lights follows them home.

In a smooth-as-aged-Bourbon drawl, Bubby Weber, the weathered maintenance manager at the Cabildo Museum, tells of an incident at a formal party in the museum courtyard. “There were ’bout 500 people at the function,” he begins. Then, he says, a shadow fell over the courtyard. Satin and velvet-garbed women shrieked. Grown men dropped cocktails mid-sip, tripping over one another trying to escape.

And that’s how they say it is here every swarming season (typically from April through June). Formosan termites, in their winged reproductive stage, rain on the city. The bug-cloud is so thick, it dims the street lights. Blind, sex-crazed wood-chomping monsters dive-bomb into low-cut necklines, drown themselves in Bourbon Street revelers’ beer bottles, and fall by bucketfuls onto passing cars.

But I’ve arrived in September; the swarmers have shed their wings, mated, and hidden underground. Although no longer hovering above, the insects are relentlessly chewing below, reducing beams, studs, support posts, and joists of centuries-old historic buildings to so many piles of toothpicks.

On a park bench across from the Cabildo Museum, outside Jackson Square, a burly trombonist in t-shirt and baseball cap blares a boisterous “Hello Dolly.” Sidewalk artists sketch pastel portraits of tourists. A billboard advertises readings from “The Voodoo Queen of New Orleans.” Other fortune-tellers line the perimeter in front of the park’s wrought-iron fence. They proffer spells to attract love and spells to remove curses. No one seems to have a spell to get rid of the city’s own buggy curse.

I feel a certain comradeship with New Orleans. A few months after I bought my dream house I learned it had been, for many years, infested by a more docile, domestic breed of subterranean termites. I’ve since had the house treated and repaired the damage— about $35,000 worth — hidden inside walls, floors, and ceilings.

From what I’ve heard, Formosans make the indigenous bugs that chowed down on my home look like amateurs. I’m here in to find out if these super-termites are as bad as they say. My guide, Gregg Henderson, is an entomologist (a scientist who studies insects) from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Outfitted in Australian outback hat, shorts, Hawaiian shirt, and hiking boots, this lanky professor hunts Formosans.

Formosans are as bad as they say, he tells me. Maybe worse.

“They’re eating everything in sight,” Henderson says. “And the only thing that we see that will cause their demise, ultimately, is a lack of food.”

(Gulp.)

Although that food is wood and wood-products, scientists like Henderson have documented Formosan attacks on asphalt, rubber, Styrofoam, even thin sheets of soft metal, in the insects’ search for something edible. Their massive multi-million member colonies can reduce a solid house to uninhabitability within months. (Our native bugs’ colonies typically have a couple of hundred thousand members.) Unlike their more genteel American cousins, they also attack and kill live trees.

Henderson’s bug commentary alternates between that of dispassionate scientist and of the mischievous boy who likes to dangle wriggling insects in your face. “If you were to pluck the queen out of the colony, and allow the rest of the colony to sit there, a number of female workers will develop into new queens.” He breaks into a gap-toothed grin. “It’s sort of like that scary movie where you blow up the monster and it’s a bunch of little pieces. And every one of those develops into another monster.”

Termites, Termites, Everywhere
In a parking area on one of the French Quarter’s typically charming streets, Henderson and I run into redheaded, husky Ernie Thomas, who manages 32 French Quarter apartment houses. Ernie’s nightmares are as bug-infested as his buildings. He tells us he dreamed of doing battle in his attic with a termite the size of a Volkswagen. It doesn’t sound any worse than what he sees at work every day of swarming season. “I go in there and there are thousands and thousands of dead termites everywhere – on the floor, in the lampshades, in the light covers. They like to go into the light. In the toilet, I’ve seen just a solid layer of them, half an inch thick, floating.”
Outside Ernie’s office, sections of the wooden catwalks and stairs to the upper stories look as porous as honeycomb.

That damage is probably new, Henderson says, because he sees evidence elsewhere of recent repair.

As Henderson leads me deeper into the French Quarter, I gawk at the old-world architecture, the intricate ironwork. He brings me back to earth by pointing out a thick termite mud tunnel above a graceful arched doorway. The blind bugs build these tubes, really termite highways, of dirt, chewed wood, and termite feces. He leans on the seemingly solid wooden door frame and it bends inward like rubber. (Termites typically start munching deep inside the wood and chew their way outward.) A few doors down, he finds another, larger mud tube. “That’s a lot of termite activity oozing out,” he says, smirking like a kid hoping to gross-out a grown-up.
Coptotermes formosanus shiraki, as Formosans are formally known, probably arrived as stowaways on ships returning to New Orleans from Asia after World War II. Tucked into wooden supply crates, and hidden deep inside imported exotic woods, may have been just a few tiny insects. But, as with termites’ close relatives, the cockroaches, that’s enough to begin a massive infestation.

“When a colony gets started, there’s one male and one female,” says Henderson. “They will produce 30 individuals in one year. In two years, maybe 70 individuals are in that colony. Then you start getting exponential growth.” Within ten years, he says, the colony that started as the nest of one happy Formosan couple can easily have 10 million voracious little termite mouths to feed.

It’s been more than fifty years since the first Formosan termites came ashore here. That’s plenty of time to make billions of bugs.

Insect Architecture
At historic Perseverance Hall, a former Masonic Temple, we meet up with Ed Bordes and Ed Freytag of the New Orleans Mosquito and Termite Control Board. One of the Eds hands me a business card with a photo of a Formosan termite soldier. In a stab at entomological humor, the card’s right edge is cut to appear termite-chewed.

Both Eds are eager to share stories of the Formosan wars. “I heard about an old fellow who lived in the French Quarter,” Ed Bordes tells me. “Every swarming season, he would bring out his pop-up pup tent and set it up in his living room. He’d bring his TV set and a little light in his pup tent and he would run an extension to it. And he would stay in there because every afternoon his room would fill up with winged termites.”

Ed and Ed point out a few sites of damage on Perseverance Hall’s exterior. But the Eds really want me to see the nest inside. Plaster has been removed from some walls so that engineers can assess the destruction. From floor to ceiling, within one section, Formosan termites have hollowed out the insides, eating away every stud, beam, and plate, then using the excreted remains to build an above-ground nest. The thing resembles a giant wall of flaky, lighter-than-air French pastry or phyllo dough — and has about the equivalent structural soundness. But these are subterranean termites. Why is this nest above ground?

The main nest is below ground, says Henderson. This is a pied-á-terre. “If something attacks them at one nest, but they have multiple nests, they survive,” he says. “You might kill one nest but not all.”

PAR-TY! PAR-TY!
At the end of the day, Henderson and I retreat to a French Quarter restaurant in a building (to my relief) built of brick. Later, we stroll down Bourbon Street and I get my first glimpse of famed French Quarter hedonism. Happy tourists, drinks in hand, weave about, some ducking into nightclubs which blast New Orleans blues, others checking out establishments like Reverend Zombey’s Voodoo Shop. Men and women (and some who blur the line between the genders), wear multiple strings of iridescent plastic beads – French Quarter wampum. In the balconies above the bars, dozens of alcohol-dazed dudes chant to young women on the streets below, “Show us your breasts… Show us your breasts,” then toss their strings of plastic currency to those giggling gals who comply.

This being the bug tour, I’m more curious about the structural state of the balconies than the crowds hanging over their iron railings. So the next morning, I wander down a somewhat subdued Bourbon Street, video camera in hand, and zoom in on the wooden undersides of these second-story party headquarters. To my layperson’s eye it looks as if the Formosans have been having at least as fine a time.

When I later show Henderson several areas of deterioration, he confirms that termites appear to have been throwing their own parties up there.

No Safe Place
But he has even more interesting stuff to show me. The French Quarter ends at the Mississippi River. The below-sea-level city is rimmed with a flood wall. “If the Mississippi gets very high, this is the defense against overflow,” Henderson says. The concrete sections, massive and solid, are caulked with bagasse, a wood-fiber by-product of sugar cane processing. “When concrete expands and contracts with the weather, this will allow it to move,” he explains, because one big mass of concrete would crack. He smiles broadly, then pokes a finger between concrete sections. The ‘caulk’ crumbles. Maggot-like termites tumble to the ground. What once was bagasse has been replaced by insect excrement . The Army Corps of Engineers, he says, plans to replace all 1,500 expansion joints with less tasty ceramic material along the nine miles Formosans have devoured.

On the other side of the flood wall at the railroad tracks, Henderson kicks open an old railroad tie and interrupts the lunch of a few thousand Formosans. That reminds him: these bugs travel well.

“We’re shipping Formosan subterranean termites to other parts of the U.S. through infested railroad ties.” The heavy lumber gets recycled for landscaping uses. It seems not to have occurred to recyclers that they might be shipping something more than wood. Six separate Formosan infestations were found in Atlanta, Georgia. “A researcher was able to employ a DNA fingerprinting technique to identify where those termites came from,” says Henderson. Yup. New Orleans. “A researcher in Texas says they pile these railroad ties on the side of the road for people to pick up. And they like to pick up the lighter ones.” He pauses and chuckles, waiting for me to figure out why they’re lighter. Oh. Right: digested from the inside out.

“You’ve got them moving about very readily through whole colonies being transported.” Formosans are now in 11 states. And the chances of them crossing more borders, says Henderson, are quite good.

Kansas, Virginia, New Mexico, Utah — be afraid. Be very afraid.

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Author's note: This pre-Katrina tale of New Orleans, although it deals with a different assault on the city, reminds me of what that place once was. So, although termites are far from New Orleans greatest challenge today, I've kept it on my site.