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There are seven documented termite species in the genus Reticulitermes that are known pests in the US, and these species alone are responsible for 80 to as much as 95 percent of all termite-related property damages reported annually in the country. A fairly recent study found that the cost of termite control efforts and termite damage repairs amount to 11 billion dollars every year in the US alone. Due to its relatively expansive habitat range, the eastern subterranean termite (Reticulitermes flavipes) is the most commonly managed, the most destructive, and the most economically costly structural pest in the US. While most entomologists and pest management professionals claim that the EST is the only termite pest found in Massachusetts, another species, R. arenincola, has been documented as infesting structures in Boston. This species was first discovered in Boston in 1931 where it was believed to maintain a restricted habitat until additional colonies were recovered from sand dunes in Indiana, and in coastal areas surrounding the Great Lakes.

Recently published academic studies claim that early termite surveyors mistakenly referred to R. flavipes specimens in Boston as specimens belonging to an entirely different species that the surveyors had named R. arenincola. A recent study used cutting edge technology to show that specimens purported to be R. arenincola are genetically identical to R. flavipes specimens. Despite this evidence, a small minority of entomologists continue to refer to R. arenincola as a legitimate species that is distinct from R. flavipes. Today, R. arenincola is widely considered to be Nomen dubium, or a false species, but one 2004 study found that soldier specimens purported to be from R. arenincola colonies looked nothing like R. flavipes soldiers. This is an important observation, as worker specimens from nearly all Reticulitermes species in the US and Europe are identical in appearance, but soldiers are not. In fact, if two soldier specimens look different, they must also be different species.

When a Reticulitermes termite colony is found, entomologists must recover and visually observe the physical appearance (morphology) of its soldier specimens in order to accurately identify the species. Unfortunately, Reticulitermes soldiers only account for two percent of a colony’s inhabitants, and unlike workers, soldiers never infest wood. This makes recovering soldier specimens from underground nests a very difficult task, especially when nests are associated with mature colonies, which contain 20,000 to more than one million inhabitants. It should also be mentioned that Reticulitermes species are very similar genetically, so demonstrating genetic similarities between R. arenincola and R. flavipes does not disprove the theory that the former is a seperate species. For now, the legitimacy of R. arenincola as a distinct termite species remains a topic of debate among entomologists.

Do you think that additional subterranean termite pest species that currently cannot be found north of New Jersey will eventually migrate into Massachusetts?