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Working out the Bugs

IN-HOUSE TERMITE FARMSpend a few minutes in the PPG architectural coatings research and development laboratory in Albi, France, and eventually you’ll become aware of a curious, soft noise. Muffled crunching, maybe? No, you realize, it’s munching.

Thousands of termites are happily chewing away inside five tanks measuring about one cubic meter each. And wood-boring beetle larvae are happily crawling in wood samples. To Søren Poulsen, research and development (R&D) manager at the facility, the soft munching is a reassuring sound. It means that the termites and insects are healthy and available to test PPG’s Xylophene line of wood-preservative products. (The site and product line came to PPG with its 2012 acquisition of the former Dyrup A/S organization.)

“What people remember most after visiting our lab is the sound of the termites feeding,” Poulsen said. “It makes quite an impression.”

Carefully controlled environment

Working out the bugsRaising the critters on the termite “farm” is no small task. The insects are nestled in containers surrounded by water to prevent them from escaping. The temperature and humidity are carefully controlled to provide the best growing environment, and the termites are fed a tasty diet of cellulose – ranging from telephone books to pine wood.

Not far away, in another chamber of the lab, the termites and beetle larvae are put to work. Poulsen’s team conducts tests of various product formulations by placing the insects into glass bottles along with the biocide-treated wood. Then, for up to three months, the termites, larvae and beetles are observed. Dead insects are counted, and the results are tabulated and analyzed.

As a quality and supply-control measure, the lab grows its own insects and termites (rather than purchasing them from outside sources), and performs its own tests. It’s important to have control over as many variables as possible, Poulsen notes, to guarantee a steady supply of test results for the new developments and to ensure that test results are comparable.

Termites: Did You Know?

  • A mature queen termite in some species can produce as many as 30,000 eggs in a day.
  • Termites can fit through cracks as thin as a business card, which is about 1/32 of an inch.
  • A typical home with termites may have three to four termite colonies with as many as 1 million termites in each colony.
  • Although they’re voracious eaters, termites depend on microscopic bacteria and protozoa in their guts to digest their food.
  • Concrete and masonry are often ineffective in stopping termites, which can burrow through mortar and squeeze through tiny cracks.