Bugged by insects? One man tries suing Washington

The first time termites infested Harry Hoskins's carport, he did what most people do. He called the exterminator, tore out all the old chewed-up wood, and rebuilt his carport.

The second time they arrived, in the hundreds of thousands, Mr. Hoskins, a lawyer, decided to sue the federal government.

You see, Hoskins has Formosan Termites, one of the most voracious eaters the world has ever known.

These little insects, Hoskins believes, made their way to New Orleans aboard wooden planks from Asia, carried on a US Navy ship during World War II. And Hoskins believes the federal government should be responsible not just for his own carport, but for Formosan termite-damaged structures all across the South, and in California and Hawaii, too.

"In the '50s, the government knew there was a problem, and they were told they needed to do something to eradicate Formosan termites, or there would be far-reaching consequences," says Hoskins, tearing open a wooden support beam in his carport with his hand. "Well, you know the rest of the story."

Across the American South, homeowners know the story of the Formosan termite all too well, although few have taken their pest problems to court.

The scope of the problem, by all accounts, is massive. Formosan termites can be found infesting homes in some 11 states. In New Orleans alone, the cost of repairing Formosan-chewed structures runs about $300 million a year. Nationwide, the damages exceed those caused by fire, flood, and tornado.

"We joke that this is the second Battle of New Orleans," says Ed Bordes, director of the New Orleans Mosquito and Termite Control Board. "The first battle was a lot easier, because the redcoats marched in a straight line."

While most entomologists trace the original infestation of Formosan termites to World War II, and mostly around naval bases that carried cargo from Asia, legal experts say that proving the federal government to be liable for damages will be difficult at best.

One law professor, Blaine LeCesne of Loyola University, has one word for Hoskins's attempt to trace the infestation to a single wooden stage at Camp Leroy Johnson in New Orleans. The word is "bizarre."

But while Hoskins's class-action suit lumbers through the courts, entomologists are making strides in understanding, and fighting, the world's hungriest termite.

Formosan termites are hardly a new phenomenon. Thought to have originated in southern China, Formosan termites made their way from port city to port city by way of trading ships. One Japanese monk in the 1600s, commenting on the new alien bugs in the shipping port of Nagasaki, described them as being the size of a grain of rice, but with the potential for destroying a wooden temple. He nicknamed them do-to-su, or temple destroyer.

What makes the Formosan termite so devastating is not the appetite of the individual termite, but the size of its colony.

Unlike native termite colonies, which tend to number a few hundred thousand, Formosan termite colonies can grow to anywhere from 5 million and upward, and their underground nests can be as large as 300 feet across. Pouring poison around the perimeter of a house may kill a few thousand, but Formosan termites tend to march through poison barriers like the Allies taking the beaches of Normandy.

The largest Formosan termite infestation in recorded history was found in the Algiers Regional Library, across the river from New Orleans. The termites were feeding not on books, but on tree trunks buried by a hasty developer in the neighborhood.

"There were some 60 or 70 million individuals," says Mr. Bordes. "This was the equivalent of a 180-pound animal feeding on that structure."

What killed this colony, finally, was a new pest-management system that inhibits a termite's ability to molt its hard exoskeleton as it grows.

As the poisoned termites make their way home, after a long day of chewing hardwood floors and copies of Encyclopedia Brittanica, they poison their fellows. In time, the colony's population goes into a steep decline.

Like many entomologists, Nan-Yao Su speaks of the Formosan termite with grudging respect.

"We haven't eradicated a single insect in the history of humankind," says Dr. Su, one of the chief developers for the poison bait system used in the Algiers library. "The best we can do, I think, is to manage the populations."

This, of course, is small comfort to Harry Hoskins, who recently found Formosan termites in a metal electrical conduit leading into his house.

At present, Hoskins's lawsuit is in the discovery phase, as he requests paperwork from the Pentagon on who knew about the Formosan termite infestation at Camp Leroy Johnson and when they knew it. But he has been getting calls from neighbors and fellow New Orleans natives eager to join his suit.

"The real drudgery of the lawsuit is just beginning," he says, adding, "These things didn't just fly over from Formosa, and we didn't invite them in either."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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