Israel declares war as super termites invade

Formosal termite

Minister of Environmental Protection Gila Gamliel and Petah Tikva Municipality draw up battle plans. Can Israel eradicate the formidable Formosa subterranean termite?

Israel is on high alert after a colony of Formosan subterranean termites was found in Petah Tikva's Kfar Avraham neighborhood last month.

To understand how seriously Israel is taking the super-termite, ""Globes" was present earlier this month when a team from the Ministries of Environmental Protection, Agriculture and Health joined forces with representatives of the Nature and Parks Authority and the Petah Tikva Municipality's sanitation and pesticides departments to draw up a plan of action on how to combat the highly destructive insects. Present at the meeting were Minister of Environmental Protection Gila Gamliel and Petah Tikva Mayor Rami Greenberg.

Before the minister and mayor arrive, Minister of Environmental Protection senior director general natural resources Alon Zask drills holes into the ground and puts in monitoring points, which are then mistakenly referred to as traps. It is not exactly a mistake because they are trapped but that is not the aim.

Alon Bar, a senior pest control coordinator at the Ministry of Environmental Protection, found some examples and put them into a small test tube. He shows us them and we make comparisons with regular Israeli termites, which he shows us in another test tube. He explains that there are ten different types of termites in Israel, three of which come into the home.

But the Formosan subterranean termite is the most notorious of them all. It is the most ravenous known termite. A Formosan termite colony of several million individual termites can dig 100 meters into the soil and eat through 400 grams of wood per day. Entire structures can be damaged in less than three months and the termites can destroy underground electricity and communications cables. Trees are in danger. They can eat through railroad ties, insulation panels in walls, plaster, plastic, asphalt, and even thin layers of lead and copper. It's a serious termite.

Looking at them in the test tubes, we can see that the Formosan termite is three times the size of its Israeli cousins. The termites also have formidable reproduction qualities and a single colony can contain several million individuals. They have a caste system, including a king, queen, workers, soldiers, and winged termites. The workers provide the food, soldiers defend the nest, and others focusing on breeding. The queen lives about 15 years and can produce up to 2,000 eggs per day. The workers and soldiers may live 5 years and there are around 360 workers per 40 soldiers.

The Ministry of Environmental Protection team has set about 200 monitoring points around the area and marked each point with a barcode. They will return in several months to see how far they have spread. Typically Formosan termites are known to advance one kilometer per year.

Kfar Avraham in northeast Petah Tikva is coincidentally one of Israel's most high Covid-19 infection neighborhoods. But while the coronavirus is relatively new, estimates are that the Formosan termite has already been here for at least a year and maybe even three years judging by the distance between several buildings that are already infested.

Minister of Environmental Protection Gila Gamliel promises to try and eradicate the termites. She says, "The entry of all types of invasive insects to Israel will increase in frequency in the coming years as the climate crisis becomes more severe and trade increases."

The termites are native to southern China and Taiwan (formerly Formosa) but have spread as far as the US, South Africa, Japan, Sri Lanka and elsewhere. Gamliel acknowledges that no country has ever managed to eradicate them but insists that perhaps we can succeed whether other have failed if we cope better, know how to cooperate etc.

It all sounds a bit unlikely in the midst of the second Covid-19 lockdown considering how we have messed up coping with the virus and here we were in masks in one of the most infected neighborhoods in one of Israel's most infected cities. Several days later we were to learn that Gamliel had breached the lockdown rules and tested positive for Covid-19.

The pre-Covid-19 Gamliel talked about a law she wants to promote to prevent biological invasions by prohibiting importing, owning, trading, propagating or distributing foreign species. Enacting such a law has already been delayed by 10 years and in a country without a budget and plans for the future it is hard to envisage such a law passing now.

For his part Petah Tikva Mayor Rami Greenberg said, "I thank the minister and her staff for their cooperation and efforts to combat the pest. We have prepared a work plan focusing on use of wood products and building permits and reducing it to the minimum required."

Gamiliel said that we do not yet know how the termite found its way to Israel. Greenberg speculates it may have reached the neighborhood from a nearby wood warehouse. He says that there have been 20 complaints in his city where the presence of the termites has been found. There are even now fears that the presence of the termites could reduce the value of properties. Media reports about the "world's most dangerous termites" haven't helped, even though the pests at least are not life threatening.

Greenberg finds himself in an unenviable position, beset by complaints from residents but almost completely reliant on the government to deal effectively with the problem.

After the photo-op in which Gamliel drills the last fraction of a centimeter and puts the termite monitor in place and then drive off, the professionals do not paint an optimistic picture of Israel's chances of beating the bug. It seems that in Israel there is no one body responsible for preventing the invasion of such species. It seems that they can keep on coming and nobody is going to cause them problems, except for burying a few monitoring points. Instead of catching the termite at the port of entry, we are now trying to halt the invasion outside a pleasant apartment block in a Petah Tikva neighborhood.

So what happens now? We wait say the experts. In several months' time we'll come back to the monitoring points and see how far they have spread. But the best indication will come next spring when the 'nuptial flight' occurs. According to the number of queens and kings produced we'll know in just how much trouble we are.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on October 11, 2020

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2020

Formosal termite
Formosal termite
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