Bugs and Money: Termites, Mosquitoes and Fruit Flies

Feb 21, 2016

The story of modern South Florida is a story of fighting bugs.

Conquering South Florida’s landscape meant tolerating pests of all kinds that are fed by our sunny, moist climate. Those are the same features that inspired Henry Flagler to bring his railroad south from Palm Beach and for Napoleon Bonaparte Broward's promise to drain the Everglades.

South Florida has the love bug, which drivers hate. It has  the kissing bug, which can carry a deadly parasite if it bites you. There are carpenter ants and fire ants, black flies and white flies plus cockroaches from four continents.

Bugs are a nuisance to most of us. Creepy crawly things we smash, spray or trap to get rid of. We spend millions on them, working to protect our homes, food and health.

Termite Trouble

Thomas Chouvenc loves termites so much he moved from his native France to Fort Lauderdale to study them. A year ago his research found that two types of foreign termites relatively new to South Florida are mating and creating a "super-termite." The species are spreading. And fast.

"When they first arrived, they were only located in very small pockets of urban areas," said Chouvenc from his laboratory in Davie. "Maybe we had one or two colonies in the 1980s. In the 90s maybe we had 10 or 20. In 2000 maybe 100. Now we have 10,000, maybe a million, colonies."

These colonies of Formosan and Asian subterranean termites hold hundreds of thousands more termites than the more familiar drywood termite species. The foreign bugs also do more damage and do it faster.

New research by Chouvenc and University of Florida Distinguished Professor of Entomology Nan-Yao Su will be released in March showing the sharp increase in these pests in South Florida shows no signs of slowing.

The new data comes out just as swarming season begins for termites here. A mature termite colony will release alates between now and April. Alates are winged termites and the only termites that can reproduce. These are the bugs that leave the colony with the potential of becoming a king and queen of a new colony.

So what does the result of the first termite swarm of the season look like?:

Battling Mosquitoes

The threat of the Zika virus has renewed attention to an old fight. The modern effort to control mosquitoes in South Florida dates back to the early 20th century. By 1933, voters in Broward County mandated taxpayer money be spent on trying to control the pests. Millions of public dollars are spent each year in South Florida, hoping to keep the six-legged, bloodthirsty bugs at bay. Where they are dictates which counties spend big money on the little bugs. Here's the total amount each of five South Florida counties are spending this year:

However, having a lot of mosquitoes and not that many residents, means the dollars spent per person is substantially higher in the Florida Keys.

Stephen Smith represents part of Key West on the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District. It is a five-member board with an annual budget of almost $16 million.
Credit Nancy Klingener

  The Keys takes its mosquitoes seriously enough to have an elected mosquito control board. Stephen Smith represents a portion of Key West. "It's like guerrilla warfare. We have a lot of troops on the ground. We go door-to-door looking for standing water and breeding areas."

The district has an annual budget of $15.7 million. Smith estimates Keys property owners pay $50 for every $100,000 of taxable value to fight mosquitoes. With Monroe County's big mosquito fight and relatively few residents, it spends more than $200 per person per year battling the bugs.

Fighting Fruit Flies

Paul Hornby was in Raleigh, North Carolina in August when he got an email on his iPhone. It included a photo of a fruit fly trap from South Miami-Dade County. He didn’t have to zoom in to see the pests. He didn’t have to count them. Usually, these traps find one or two of the fruit flies. But this picture had almost four dozen. Hornby knew he had a problem.

Hornby deals with a lot of pests. That’s his job. He’s the Florida plant health director for the U-S Department of Agriculture. This fruit fly in August -- the oriental fruit fly -- is a particular curse. It can take up residence on just about every type of fruit and vegetable grown in the U.S.

The August discovery quickly led to an 85-square-mile quarantine in South Miami-Dade County. It lasted for five months shutting down acres of mamey, dragon fruit, guava and passion fruit until Feb. 13.

Jessie Capote helps run J and C Tropicals with two of his brothers. He said the small growers they work with were particularly hit hard by the five month quarantine caused by the Oriental Fruit Fly.
Credit Tom Hudson

  "It was a lot," said Jessie Capote who helps run his family's growing, packing and distribution business , J and C Tropicals. "There were times that I knew at the end of the day it wasn't going to make a difference if you let the fruit go to waste or do some of the (decontamination and segregation efforts)." Capote hasn't calculted how much business was lost during the quarantine but figures it could be about $2 million in lost sales.

"These pests have all come in and caused tremendous damage to our crops here in Florida," said Tony DiMare, vice president at DiMare Homestead, one of the largest fruit and vegetable growers and packers in the state. "When you add in the additional pests and diseases coming into Florida and damaging our crops -- from citrus to tomatoes to avocados, these costs continue to go up."

DiMare Homestead Vice President Tony DiMare (right) inspects tomatoes damaged by recent rains. The recent quarantine had little impact on DiMare, but he worries about foreign pests continuing to threaten South Florida's agriculture industry.
Credit Tom Hudson

  DiMare is particular worried about foreign pests like the oriental fruit fly. He suggested a tariff on imported products that can carry the bugs with the money earmarked for prevention and payments when a pest causes damage. As a food grower, DiMare said he would be willing to put the same tariff on U.S. products shipped overseas.

"We've been battling white fly [and] different species of thrips that carry many different viruses. This has been going on for decades, but I see it getting worse."