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And so we spray and we swat and we screen and we squish, and when the going gets really tough we call in a mercenary and we opt for the final solution: We tent.
The practice of paying a mercenary to come into one's home and wipe out pests dates back hundreds of years, when the unwanted intruders were four-legged rodents rather than six-legged insects. Experiments utilizing chlorine gas fumigation as a means of controlling termites were conducted as early as 1863, and a handful of exterminators pioneered hand-pumping arsenic-sulfur smoke from a charcoal-burning stove into termite colonies in 1903. The first commercial tent fumigation on record -- it used hydrogen-cyanide gas -- took place in California in 1935. (Safety, needless to say, was not the concern then that it is today.) Truly Nolen, Sr., founder of the pest-control empire that bears his name to this day, is widely credited with popularizing the tenting procedure in Florida in the late Thirties. (Legend has it that shortly after his arrival in Miami Beach in 1938, Nolen schlepped a caged rat door-to-door soliciting business.)
Today fumigation with tenting dominates the pest-control industry in South Florida. Guarantee/Floridian has four divisions overall, but three of them -- lawn spraying, subterranean termite control, and indoor pest control (ants, roaches, fleas, rats, et cetera) -- combined don't account for as much business as fumigation alone. "Tenting is basically only for drywood termites," clarifies Larry Weinberg. "It's too expensive to fumigate for roaches or ants."
But there is no shortage of drywood termites in Florida. They love it here. Powder-post beetles and old house borers occasionally infest homes in the area as well, the wood-eating beetles often arriving in unfumigated carved statues or furniture shipped in from the Caribbean islands or the Philippines. (Large-scale, established importers such as Pier 1 fumigate incoming wood as a standard precaution.) Once in a while, Weinberg deploys his troops to fumigate a home plagued by these exotic wood wolfers. But nine out of ten times when Guarantee/Floridian tents a home, termites are the target.
"Realtors refer about 70 percent of our fumigation jobs," explains Dominguez. "When you sell a house, you have to get a termite inspection, and lots of times that's when people discover they have a problem. Usually the house is empty and the realtor gives us the key, but sometimes the homeowners are there and they are all ticked off [no bug pun intended] because we found termites. They're afraid it's going to be a big hassle."
Quips UM's Luykx: "Termites were here before people. You have to realize that humans are the ones who decided to build their houses out of termite food." And that decision has proven very lucrative for exterminators such as Larry Weinberg, whose multicounty, four-truck, three-fumigator operation puts up an average of sixteen tents per day and takes down a similar number. (A crew of from three to five men work from each truck. Including administrative and clerical personnel, Weinberg's company employs 56 people.)
Termite inspections tied to real estate deals are only one of three common ways that Guarantee's clients discover they have a termite problem. More often they find little piles of teeny-tiny brown pellets -- termite droppings -- or they see swarms. The drywood termites themselves come in three flavors: workers and soldiers, which never emerge from inside their tunnels, and swarmers, which are winged potential queens looking for a place to start a new colony.
"When you have a swarm," cautions Dominguez, "that means you've had a colony for more than five years. When termites swarm, the males and females mate in midair. Then the female lands, drops off her wings, and looks for a place to burrow into wood. She's an egg-laying machine."
"You never see the workers or the soldiers, but if you see swarmers, you've got the rest," pronounces Weinberg with the fatalistic certainty of a doctor telling a patient the cancer has spread. "A lot of times people see the swarmers maybe two or three times and they won't see them again, so they think that they just went away. But they're always working, year-round. You just never see them. And you'll have swarmers again the next year [during swarming season -- April through June] if you don't do anything."
When a homeowner discovers pellets or swarmers, they call Weinberg's company and he dispatches an inspector. If the house does in fact have termites, the inspector recommends tenting and provides an estimate based upon the cubic footage of the house. "The bigger the house, the more gas you use, the more expensive it'll be," reasons Weinberg. "The average house costs between $500 and $750. We're talkin' about a house that's about 20,000 cubic feet. If there's heavy shrubbery around, it has to be trimmed back, or if there's a screened-in porch, the screening has to be removed. If there's a deck, you've got problems. With a fancy house the job becomes very difficult." And more expensive. Weinberg illustrates his point with a $3650 estimate for a 164,000 cubic foot mansion on Pine Tree Drive on Miami Beach.
Guarantee has undertaken some massive jobs over the years. According to general manager Richard Wagner, the company has tented everything from an antique car with wooden spoke wheels to hangars at the Opa-locka Airport: "We do trailers, mobile homes, boats. The Miami Shores Country Club."