April 2007. Mastotermes darwineansis termite in Papua New Guinea. A report from the ABC website suggested that the termite was thought to have been eradicated in the 1970s, but has been rediscovered in Lae, where it has destroyed part of the local hospital. It is a termite which occurs in northern Australia and reached Papua New Guinea during World War II in infested planks used for building wharves. It is a subterranean termite and builds underground nests and is, therefore, rarely found. The giant termites feeds on cash crops, dead and live plants and unprotected timber buildings that are in contact with the ground. If the termite spreads from the present wet area of Lae into drier areas where there are a lot more susceptible crops, the damage could be catastrophic.
Details of the occurrence were published 15 or so months ago in Papua New Guinea in the Post-Courier newspaper (Termites causing havoc. Post-Courier, Lae Today, Wednesday, 11 January 2006.
A note from a PestNet member involved in the work on the termite in Papua New Guinea, is reported in full as it gives a very good summary of the situation:
This species of termite (Mastotermes darwiniensis) attacks a wide range of tree crops, including cashews, which are a favoured host, and it is one of the most important pests of horticulture and agroforestry in Northern Australia. The termite hollows out the inside of the trees leading to their death. It is also a major pest of timber in service, and over the years has caused extensive damage to Lae hospital, the Forest Research Institute and houses in the infested area.
Despite the fact that it has been in PNG for 60 years, our survey indicated that it is still confined to two areas in Lae town. This is probably due to two main reasons. In the 1960’s and 70s an eradication campaign was carried out by DASF staff in which colonies were destroyed and contained with trenches filled with organochlorines. The expansion of the distribution over recent years is probably due to the fact that these control measure are no longer an acceptable option and have ceased. Secondly, in Australia the termite is found in low rainfall areas in the north, but is absent from high rainfall coastal rainforest localities, so Lae, with an annual rainfall in excess of 4,500 mm, is probably not a suitable location.
We could not find any evidence of flights of the termite in Lae even though alates have been found in the colonies. The present means of spread are probably through budding off from the main colony underground, and in Lae this is limited by the deep drains surrounding the currently infested areas, and being carried in infested firewood or constructional timber moved from infested areas.
We have carried out a lot of trials on this species in Northern Territory and the current control measures are based on the use of fipronil, which gets carried by the termite through the colony.
Even though it has been in Lae for 60 years, its recent expansion has increased the risk of it being carried elsewhere in PNG in infested timber. If it gets established in the drier areas of the Markham Valley, or elsewhere in PNG it could become a more serious problem. It may still be possible to contain the species to a small area in Lae, and possibly even to eradicate it, and recommendations on this have been made in my report of the survey.
The ABC transcript quoted in Pestnet is a brief summary of an interview on ABC Country Hour.