Termite Inspection Articles

Patents; Tracking termites by monitoring their digestive problems and using hot chili peppers to kill them

By Teresa Riordan

TERRY CLARK, whose family runs a pest-control empire in Lodi, Calif., believes he has a better way to find termites: monitoring the methane they expel.

''Termites eat a lot of roughage, so they have a huge gas problem,'' Mr. Clark said.

Many different technologies -- from sonar to X-rays -- have been deployed to detect termites, with varying success. What makes termites so insidious is that they can munch their way through the innards of a house undetected.

Some winged termites swarm to the surface in the spring (one reason, Mr. Clark noted, that April is National Pest Control Month). But often termites are so stealthy that for a long time the homeowner does not see so much as a wood crumb.

Mr. Clark, 40, a vice president of Clark Pest Control, is by no means the first to try methane detection. In 1982, four scientists from three continents collaborated on a paper published in Science magazine that estimated that flatulence from termites might be responsible for as much as 30 percent of the methane in the earth's atmosphere.

Since then, the level of termite-produced methane (and its possible contribution to global warming) has been a matter of fierce scientific contention.

The pest-control industry, however, seems to agree that the presence of methane is a legitimate way to track termites. Some specialists use trained beagles to detect it. And some hand-held electronic termite ''sniffers'' are already on the market.

But those are supposed to detect methane within the house, Mr. Clark said, while his system is designed to detect and kill termites before they even get to the house.

To monitor termite activity, Mr. Clark will ring a house with a couple of dozen of his devices, which are shaped somewhat like giant plastic tacks and pushed into the ground.

The flat disklike top shades the ground, giving termites, which are thermally sensitive, the impression that a nice juicy piece of cellulose might be sitting on the ground above. At the top is a methane sensor -- which Mr. Clark did not invent and which he buys off the shelf. Inside the spike end of the device is a wood stake with a cardboard collar.

''Cardboard is the junk food of termites,'' Mr. Clark said.

But this is no free meal. If the pest control expert sees, on his monthly rounds, that the methane has collected, the cardboard and wood stake can be infused with a mild poison called Premise, which the termites haul back to stock the colony larder.

Would this approach work with other pests? After all, ''cockroaches are no slackers when it comes to producing methane,'' May R. Berenbaum observed in her book ''Buzzwords: A Scientist Muses on Sex, Bugs and Rock 'n' Roll.'' So far, however, no patents appear to have been granted for such a concept.

Mr. Clark is skeptical of this approach when it comes to cockroaches.

''Cockroaches are not as well hidden as termites,'' he said. ''You know when they are there.''

Mr. Clark received United States patent 6,526,692 in March.

About 70 miles southwest of Mr. Clark, in San Carlos, Calif., Robert H. Neumann wields an entirely different weapon in the war against termites: hot chili peppers.

To be more precise, Mr. Neumann recently received his third patent for the use of capsaicin -- the oily, alkaline substance that makes peppers hot -- as a natural pesticide.


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