Termites are no one’s favorite, unless you’re an aardvark. This is especially true in Florida, where two previously separate species of termites have been observed interbreeding, according to the University of Florida. Termites already cause $40 billion in economic losses every year, making the hybrid species especially terrifying: They can reproduce at twice the rate of their parent species.
The two species, the Asian and Formosan subterranean termites, have evolved separately for thousands of years. Both have long histories in Florida, but until recently it was believed that they bred at different times of the year, making cross-breeding unlikely. Both species produce hundreds of thousands of winged male and female offspring, and what researchers have found is that male Asian termites seem to prefer mating with female Formosans, making hybridization even more likely.
Scientists aren’t sure if the female offspring produced by the interbreeding are fertile, but it may not matter much to property owners.
“Because a termite colony can live up to 20 years with millions of individuals, the damaging potential of a hybrid colony remains a serious threat to homeowners even if the hybrid colony does not produce fertile winged termites,” said Nan-Yao Su, an entomology professor at the UF Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center. “This is especially true when the colony exhibits hybrid vigor as we witnessed in the laboratory.”
What’s more worrisome is that if the two species are able to produce fertile children, the especially randy hybrid species could reproduce at such a rate that they easily expand beyond Florida. The two species are already invasive in their own rights. The Formosan termite originated in China, and now is widespread across the southeastern United States. The Asian subterranean termite is even more prolific, having spread from its home in Southeast Asia all the way to Brazil and parts of the Caribbean.
“This is worrisome, as the combination of genes between the two species results in highly vigorous hybridized colonies that can develop twice as fast as the two parental species,” said Thomas Chouvenc, an assistant researcher who works with Su. “The establishment of hybrid termite populations is expected to result in dramatically increased damage to structures in the near future.”
If there’s any good news, it’s that termites can often be warded off with common pest control methods, like baits and insecticides injected into the soil. Still, the researchers say, the new species could pose a real threat, and no one’s quite sure of their potential for destruction.