New fly offers hope for termite control

Shiow Chin Tan 20 August 2009 | EN Termites – top target for Malaysian pest control [KUALA LUMPUR] A new scuttle fly species that shows potential as a biological agent in the control of termite infestations has been discovered in Malaysia. Neoh Kok-Boon, a PhD student at the School of Biological Sciences of Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), discovered the new species while excavating mounds of the termite species Macrotemes gilvus at the university's Minden campus in Penang state. "He noticed there were some termite soldiers that looked very different from the normal ones," says Lee Chow-Yang, Neoh's supervisor and professor of urban entomology at the school's Vector Control Research Unit. The termite soldiers died within several days, Lee told SciDev.Net, and researchers noticed live flies in the container with the dead termites. They later found that fly larvae grew within a host's head until they were ready to pupate, giving infected termites enlarged heads. The flies then moved down through the termite's body, eventually breaking through the abdominal wall, killing the host in the process. The researchers' findings are published in the latest issue of Sociobiology but Neoh cautions that more research is needed before the fly, named Misotermes mindeni, can be confirmed as an effective agent for controlling termite infestations. "First, we'd like to determine the mechanism of parasitism of the fly," he says, adding that another PhD student in his department is researching this aspect of the new species. This work will probably take several years to complete, he says. According to the university, termite control costs the country about 50 million Malaysian ringgit (US$14 million) a year. The cost for South-East Asia was recently put at around US$400 million but the repair bill for termite damage is believed to be 3–4 times higher. Henry Disney, senior research ssociate in the Department of Zoology at Cambridge University in the UK, confirmed that M. mindeni was a previously unknown species of scuttle fly. In 2007, Lee's team discovered another new insect species on the Minden campus — a cricket (Myrmecophilus leei).