FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Their love crossed the barrier between species, and now a new kind of termite may be chewing its way through Florida’s houses.
Scientists at the University of Florida have confirmed the Asian and Formosan subterranean termites — both formidable non-native species — are mating in south Florida.
In an article published in the peer-reviewed online journal PLOS ONE, they say the offspring of these species thrive by combining the strongest qualities of their parents. The two species are considered particularly damaging and difficult to control, since they travel underground and burrow up through buildings.
“This is worrisome, as the combination of genes between the two species results in highly vigorous hybridized colonies that can develop twice as fast as the two parental species,” said Thomas Chouvenc, research assistant at the University of Florida’s Subterranean Termite laboratory. “The establishment of hybrid termite populations is expected to result in dramatically increased damage to structures in the near future.”
No one knows how much they will eat, whether they will be able to tolerate colder temperature, whether they’ll remain confined to South Florida, how fast they will grow or whether they will be sterile like many hybrids.
But even if sterile, they could constitute a significant problem.
“Because a termite colony can live up to 20 years with millions of individuals, the damaging potential of a hybrid colony remains a serious threat to homeowners even if the hybrid colony does not produce fertile winged termites,” said Nan-Yao Su, an entomology professor at the UF Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center.
The potential for the termites to interbreed was first noticed by Chouvenc around his own house in Fort Lauderdale two years ago, where he observed both species simultaneously engaging in swarming.
Termites swarm for a few weeks a year, sending out winged males and females that pair up, burrow into a dead tree branch or part of a house and found new colonies. At the time, the thinking was that Formosan and Asian termites swarmed at different times of the year, which would make it impossible for them to interbreed.
The University of Florida scientists set up a program to monitor the termites systematically in 2014 and found 26 days when their swarming periods overlapped. And confirming their worst fears, they saw the two species mating in the wild.
They have not yet confirmed that they’re producing hybrid offspring in the wild. But in the laboratory, they have.
What sort of termite do they produce? The bad news is that based on lab results, the hybrid colonies appear to grow faster than those of either species that produced them.