Termites have been known to exist in the Maltese islands as early as the Roman period and are mentioned in literature during the Knights and British colonisation. However, they were scientifically recorded early in the 1970s by Guido Lanfranco.

As naturalists, we were aware of these species but in the pest control industry they were usually given minor importance locally compared to other pests. However in other countries where most houses are made solely of wood, they can cause huge problems.

Up to a few years ago termites were of such minor importance locally that they were classified in layman’s terms just as susa, which in Maltese refers to any insect that in one of its life stages attacks live or dead wood. In practice the word is not indicative at all and is like referring to every crawling organism on earth that has a link with wood as an insect.

Worldwide there are thousands of species that can generally be classified as wood borers. Many species, such as the carpenter bee, dig holes in dead cane to create their nest but the impact is virtually nil. However, species like termites can have devastating effects and turn a property into ruins.

In the past two years so much has changed locally that people faced with a termite problem use the coined term for termites – ‘white ants’ or ‘nemel abjad’.

As eusocial insects, termites live in colonies that, at maturity, may range in number from several hundred to several million individuals. A typical colony contains nymphs (semi-mature young), workers, soldiers and reproductive individuals of both sexes, sometimes containing several egg-laying queens.

At maturity, a primary queen has a great capacity to lay eggs. Some species are often reported to produce more than 2,000 eggs a day. The king grows only slightly larger after initial mating and continues to mate with the queen for life. A termite queen can live for 45 years.

Up to five years ago there were circa 250 colonies mostly in the north-west of Malta. But in the past two years, they have spread in so many areas that is impossible to keep track anymore

Termites are weak and relatively fragile insects that need to stay moist to survive. When exposed they can be easily overpowered and devoured by at least three species of local ants and other predators. They avoid these perils by covering their trails with tubing made of feces, plant matter, saliva and soil.

Thus, termites can remain hidden and avoid unfavourable environmental conditions. Sometimes these shelter tubes can extend for many metres, such as up the outside of a tree or a wall, reaching from the soil to dead branches, or in domestic cases, the furniture.

Due to their wood-eating habit, many termite species can do a great deal of damage to unprotected buildings and other wooden structures. Their habit of remaining concealed often results in their presence remaining undetected until the timber is severely damaged and surface changes appear. Once termites have en­tered a building, they do not limit themselves to wood; they also damage paper, cloth, carpets, and other cellulosic materials.

Two species are known to exist locally at present: The garden termite (Kalotermes flavicollis) and the damp wood termite (Reticulitermes lucifugus), the latter being the main household pest.

Up to five years ago the areas where termite colonies were situated in Malta were well-known; there were circa 250 colonies mostly in the north-west, and it was thought unlikely that the species would move far. But in the past two years, they have spread in so many areas that it is impossible to keep track anymore. Even in Gozo over 18 cases were reported last year. Although termites are not the hardest of pests to control, it is almost impossible to eradicate the species because the source colonies can be several hundred metres away from the evidence of their presence.

They may cause thousands of euros of damage and it is highly recommended for property buyers to consult a professional pest entomologist before buying a property. People already living in a property with a termite problem should consult such professionals at least twice yearly while keeping a constant lookout on their property and its valuables.

Arnold Sciberras is a pest entomological consultant and Jeffrey Sciberras is a pest botanical consultant at Fort Pest Control. For further information call 2143 4534 or e-mail info@fortpestcontrol.com.

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