‘Hidden’ cause of home damage brought on by La Niña weather events

Window frame damaged by termites

A Brisbane pest exterminator says he has never seen so many termite infestations, with the pest enjoying the perennial dampness caused by consecutive La Niña weather systems. 

The wood-munching menaces’ activities slowed when Queensland was under drought conditions, but with consistent rain for the past two years, they are back with a vengeance and threatening properties.

“Termites have exponentially increased in the past two years,” said Gavin Shill, who runs a pest extermination business.

“I’ve been doing this for nearly 23 years and I’ve never seen it this bad in terms of termites.”

Mr Shill said his company had been carrying out more “active treatments” dealing with infestations that have already taken hold rather than preventative measures than ever before.

A man stands smiling on a deck, holding a tablet.
Gavin Shill is a pest exterminator in Brisbane. (Supplied: Gavin Shill)

“We are doing seven or eight per month now, where it used to be just a couple per month,” he said. “It’s just gone through the roof. I’ve been working on houses that are completely gutted. They’re in every single wall and the roof.

“It’s the sheer volume of them that’s shocking.”

A termite track leading from the ground to a wooden window sill.
Termites finding a point of entry despite a brick wall. (Supplied: Gavin Shill)

Professor Dieter Hochuli, who leads the Integrative Ecology Group at the University of Sydney, said it’s going to be a red-letter year for termites.

“It’s going to be a massive year for termites as the high levels of soil moisture are ideal for them to burrow and flourish,” he said. 

“Termites are particularly sensitive when it comes to drying out so having an extremely moist environment has been very beneficial for them.

“That’s particularly true for the ones that are house pests.

“So when they are making their way underground and searching for new sources of food, life has become a little bit easier for them.”

What makes your home vulnerable to termites?

Termite tracks visible under paint.
Mr Shill said he’d recently dealt with houses that were completely gutted by termites. (Supplied: Gavin Shill)

Mr Shill said damp spots in wooden properties attract termites.

“It’s all about moisture. If you’ve got gutters that are backed up, or water flowing into walls anywhere, it makes the house vulnerable to the termites.

“They are attracted by the moisture then they look for a food source.”

Mr Shill recently found termites located under a rubber doormat, due to the dampness there. 

Termite tracks in sandy soil under a rubber mat.
Termites can gather anywhere there is moisture, like under this rubber doormat. (Supplied: All Year Pest Solutions)

Have the rains seen an increase in other pests?

Not yet, said Mr Shill, but soon.

“Not massively. It’s been a moderate or even slow year so far,” he said. “That’s because we haven’t had the heat yet. There has been an increase in things like bees, but not the other stuff just yet.”

A striped brown and black cockroach clings to the bark of a tree.
With the heat kicking in, expect an explosion of cockroaches. (Supplied: Alan Henderson)

With temperatures set to rise in south-east Queensland this week, that is likely to change.

“With hotter days forecast later in this week, following the rain we’ve just had, we’re about to see an explosion of cockroaches the big American and Australian ones that fly into your house and spiders,” Mr Shill said.

“They have slower breeding patterns, but when it gets hot they speed up. By the end of the week we should be seeing large numbers of those entering people’s houses.”

Professor Hochuli said warm weather and moistness were key.

“Similarly to the termites, the spiders are likely to be responding to an increase in available food, as will the cockies,” he said. “And moist and warm is exactly what many spider and cockroach species like!”

Why is this happening to us?

A slab of wood with large cracks in in.
Termites have attacked this bearer beam. (Supplied: All Year Pest Solutions)

Conditions are ideal right now for pesky bugs.

“The bottom line is that heat and moisture make ideal conditions for a wide variety of insects,” said Professor Hochuli. “Their biology is really closely tied to responding to when conditions are good. Rainfall promotes high growth of plants and promote the species that eat them.

“That then means there’s heaps of food for the things that eat other insects. It’s basically a bottom up driven system where the high primary productivity drives the success of a lot of animals in a lot of systems.”

A man with glasses and a bear holds up a framed picture of bugs and smiles.
Professor Dieter Hochuli of the University of Sydney said moistness is the key. (Supplied: Dieter Hochuli)

Insects don’t like it when it’s dry, Professor Hochuli said, so the months of wet weather have been a godsend for them.

“Really moist environments take that dryness out of the equation, which means a lot of animals that would’ve died soon after hatching don’t die,” he said. “That’s the fate of most insect eggs, either not hatching or dying really soon after. And that not happening means their numbers really build up.”

What can we do about spiders and cockroaches?

A redback spider sits on a branch amongst its web.
Spiders and cockroaches enjoy the warm weather. (Supplied: CSIRO)

There’s not much you can do to prevent a spider invasion other than a preventative pesticide treatment, Mr Shill said, but you can make your home less appealing to cockroaches.

“Just general cleanliness, not leaving food scraps around, dog food outside, etcetera,” Mr Shill said.

“Make sure benches and cupboards are clean and food is stored properly. It’s the prospect of food that will draw them in.”

Lawn prawns and rats

Tiny prawn-like creature against ruler
Amphipods usually live in leaf litter and mulch but can be found in Queensland homes after periods of heavy rain. (Supplied: Helen Bender)

Though not a nuisance, more and more Queenslanders are becoming acquainted with ‘lawn prawns’.

“There were a few more last year, and with the continued wet weather there are going to be even more around this year,” Mr Shill said. 

Lawn prawns are, actually, a type of tiny prawn that lives on land.

“They live underneath debris and deadfall garden, so fallen leaves and the like, and when that becomes sodden they seek out dry places.”

So in the past they were there in people’s yards but hidden, but increasingly now they are being found on paths, cement areas and even inside houses. 

Mr Shill said if there was more flooding in the south-east in the coming months, rats would also become more visible.

“They use the drains and gutters as their transport system, so when those flood, they head to high and dry areas. Those houses at the top of the hill become a refuge for the rats.”

Oh, and don’t forget mosquitoes

A mosquito sits on a person’s skin
There are concerns we will see large numbers of mosquitoes this summer. (ABC News)

Professor Hochuli said mosquitoes are also bound to thrive under these conditions.

“The big one that is causing lots of concerns for this upcoming summer is mosquitoes,” he said.  

“Their biology is driven by available water, and higher temperatures mean they will be able to reproduce quickly once the weather heats up.

“The public health risks are significant and it will be an important summer for covering up and wearing repellent.”

ABC disclaimer

Are you already experiencing higher-than-usual insect activity? What do you do to combat infestations? Why not share your tips in the comments section below?

Written by ABC News

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