Director bugged by lighthouse pests' tenacity

April 06, 2002|By Rob Kasper

LIKE MANY homeowners, I break into a sweat when I hear the word "termite."

The other day my fear of this wood-eater increased when I visited the Seven Foot Knoll Lighthouse in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. This lighthouse, which serves as home to the Baltimore Maritime Museum, is perched 15 feet above the ground. It sits on cast-iron pilings. Its outer walls and sub-flooring are made of half-inch thick cast iron.

But somehow, termites had made their way up to the lighthouse and had been munching on its wooden parts.

This saga began one day last May when museum director John Kellett and his staff noticed flying insects inside the lighthouse. The insects had the distinguishing signs of the species: two sets of even wings, straight antennae and thick waists. They were engaging in that popular reproductive activity of termites, the springtime swarm.

"I was shocked," said Kellett. "This was the last building you would think had termites. It is up in the air. It is cast iron. It is standing over concrete and bricks."

But there was no denying that there were bugs in the lighthouse. They were flying around; they were leaving discarded wings. Kellett later discovered when he pushed his finger through a knothole that they had been busy munching on sections of the lighthouse's wooden floor.

Kellett moved into action, soliciting advice and treatment plans from a variety of termite warriors. One suggested tenting, a tactic that involved sealing the lighthouse with the equivalent of a circus tent and fumigating everything inside. This approach did not appeal to Kellett for several reasons, the main one being that it would require shutting down the museum.

On the other hand, a conventional answer to a termite infestation, drilling holes in the concrete slab underneath a building and injecting pesticides into soil under the structure, did not apply to a lighthouse.

One termite warrior who visited the lighthouse was Jerry Bukovsky, regional technical specialist for Terminix. Bukovsky, who is 46 and has been battling bugs for more than 20 years, had his doubts when he first appeared on the scene.

"The report said termites," Bukovsky told me yesterday. "But when I got out of the car and saw that we were talking about a lighthouse, I said to myself, `I don't think so.' "

Eventually, he not only believed they were there, but also developed a theory of how they got there, then proposed a plan, which Kellett accepted, of how to get rid of them.

These termites, Bukovsky surmised, were survivors of a prior infestation. Some years ago, termites had made their way up to the lighthouse by traveling through a mud tunnel (the termite's idea of an interstate highway) that they had built on the side of a toilet pipe. These termites had been treated and vanquished at ground level, or so it was thought. The mud tunnel disappeared, never to return.

Bukovsky theorized that before the ground was treated, some termites had escaped up the pipe to the lighthouse. There was enough moisture in the wood of the lighthouse to keep the termites from having to travel down to the ground for water. So instead of becoming down-to-the-ground commuters, these termites set up residence in the penthouse.

"They had moisture, food, shelter - the triangle of life," he explained.

Bukovsky ended the termites' penthouse party by tricking them. First he lured them into bait stations set up around the lighthouse that featured enticing pieces of wood. Then, once they were in the habit of dropping by for a snack, he changed the menu, adding a chemical that the termites carried back to their lair.

Bukovsky, a board-certified entomologist, gave me a detailed explanation of what is supposed to happen next. Thanks to their bad diet, the worker termites are unable to molt, and they perish. And a termite colony without workers cannot function. Chaos ensues. The colony crashes.

To keep tabs on how the battle was going; Bukovsky and crew eavesdropped on the termites with a device called an acoustic emission detector. It listens to vibrations created by termites as they rip wood fibers. During my visit to the lighthouse, he showed how it worked. He attached what looked like suction cups to a wooden windowsill and watched numerical readouts appearing on the device's screen.

"When we started treatment, we were getting readings ranging from 600 to 800 in a 25-second period," he said. "Now, zippo." In other words, all quiet on the termite front.

Kellett said he thought it was "kind of cool" the way the listening device and other forms of termite-battling technology were able to pinpoint the mystery of where the bugs were, without filling the air with poison. The infestation was caught before any significant damage occurred, he said, adding that the museum was able to keep its doors open. The treatment, which has been going on for almost a year, cost about $3,000, he said.

Kellett also said that the experience of first discovering and casting out termites from a cast-iron lighthouse helped him overcome fear of the insect.

"Hearing that you have termites is like hearing a knock in your car engine," he told me. "You take it to the mechanic, and, while it is a problem, it can be fixed pretty easily. Reality is a lot less scary than the horrible outcome you imagined."

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