What’s eating New Orleans?
By Wayne Curtis
May 14, 2015
We’re drawing to the end of an uncommonly pleasant spring in New Orleans, save for a deluge or two. The blooming of the Japanese magnolia came and went around Mardi Gras, and we’re now amid an eruption of confederate jasmine and moonflower. I’ll be bicycling along Uptown at night, and it’s as if I’ve suddenly been ambushed by a perfume salesperson at a very exclusive department store. One block it’s all faintly rosy-citrus, and the next it’s powdery jasmine. (I’ve read that these flowering plants were once widely planted to mask the stench of living in a swamp where putrefying matter didn’t naturally wash out to sea. This seems utterly plausible.)
Still, the city’s grandest and arguably most mesmerizing spectacle of spring is the swarming of the Formosan subterranean termites. They’ve just resurfaced; I noticed a handful clustering around streetlights and dive-bombing our headlights after a trip to City Park one night last week. A few pioneers have already made their way into our house.
The Formosans, also called “super-termites,” are relatively new arrivals to the city. They came to New Orleans from China during World War II, evidently as stowaways in wooden packing crates. They found their new environs agreeable—the tropical heat was to their liking, and the centuries-old wood of the French Quarter proved damp and delicious.
The city had long been plagued by native termites, but the Formosan immigrants displayed far more gumption, living underground before chewing upward into homes. A colony can consist of millions of bugs moving like a well-orchestrated army; they can eat nearly a pound of wood a day working in 24-hour shifts. Houses can be rendered unfit for habitation in just three months. I’ve heard stories of New Orleanians lying awake at night listening to the sound of their homes being voraciously consumed from within.
The most expeditious way to rid your home of a swarm is to have it tented and filled with noxious gas. A common sight when driving around the city are homes festively draped from roofline to shrubs in red-and-white-striped tenting material. We had our house tented a couple of years ago after we discovered less intrusive dry wood termites. We had to move out for three days, during which it looked like we were hosting a huge wedding to which no one was invited.
Most of the year the only reminder we have of the Formosans are shiny metal disks attached to the sidewalk in the French Quarter. They look like abandoned CDs, but mark where tainted wood has been placed in bait chambers underground. The idea was that industrious worker termites would bring the poisoned wood back to the colony, and eventually the queen would be feted with it and die, causing the colony to collapse. These were part of a ambitious federal program — called by some The Second Battle of New Orleans—which itself died in 2011 when earmarking fell out of favor in the federal budgeting process.
Mother’s Day is traditionally when the alates—which is what the winged termites are called—emerge from the grounds in their “dispersal flight.” They then fly around frenetically hoping to “find a mate, and engage in tandem behavior.” (This from a scientific research report, offering an excellent euphemism that should be used more widely.) Then they scout for a new place to establish a colony, from which they can spread more terror. So basically, if you’re homeowner, termite season is like being getting a ticket in the worst lottery ever. Once Formosans establish themselves in a city, the condition is chronic and incurable; no locale that has found itself host to these termites them has ever eradicated them.
The Formosan termites triggered an Internet panic after Hurricane Katrina, when rumors circulated nationally that home supply stores were selling mulch made from hurricane debris and larded with Formosan termites. It was viewed essentially as Ebola mulch—even though the state had quickly imposed quarantines against shipping any debris out of the storm-battered parishes unless fumigated, and most entomologists saw the spread as highly unlikely, given how mulch is processed, stored, and shipped. One chain nonetheless issued a statement: “The Home Depot does not use any mulch suppliers from the New Orleans area.”
Termites on the wing are drawn to light, and on swarm nights they get into our house through cracks we can’t see. They drop their nearly transparent wings all over my desk, which I find stuck to my forearms the next morning. If I’m reading the newspaper at night, they kamikaze into my reading light, then drop gently onto the paper, which sounds like the snap and crackle of a fresh bowl of Rice Krispies.
When that happens, we shut off all the house lights and go for a long walk. As a homeowner, I loathe each individual termite, but in mass they’re sort of mesmerizing and beautiful. During the heaviest swarm nights, they cluster in boundless pointillist haloes around the streetlights. From a distance, they look like huge and animated white carnations floating amid the architectural whimsy of New Orleans.
Then, in a day or two, the swarms will be gone, we’ll begin to turn our attention to potential hurricanes, with the storm season starting on June first.
Some people say there are no real seasons in New Orleans. Those people are wrong.
Wayne Curtis is the author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails and The Last Great Walk: The True Story of a 1909 Walk from New York to San Francisco and Why It Matters Today. He has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Imbibe, The Daily Beast, and Garden & Gun, among other publications.