(Adds termites could spread beyond Florida, paragraph 7)
By Barbara Liston
ORLANDO, Fla., March 25 (Reuters) - Two of the most destructive termites species in the world are mating in South Florida, producing hybrid colonies that are growing at twice the normal rate of other termites, scientists reported on Wednesday.
Asian and Formosan termites together are responsible for much of the estimated $40 billion in annual termite damage worldwide, and their hybrid offspring could increase the loss significantly, said Nan-Yao Su, the University of Florida entomology professor who led the study.
“It’s not good news,” said Su, whose research was published on Wednesday in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE. “It means within a shorter period of time homeowners will see the damage.”
Su attributes the development to climate change, noting that Asian and Formosan termites used to live in separate territories and swarm at different times. By 2013, both the territory and swarming season of each species had grown to overlap, he said.
The research found that Asian male termites prefer Formosan females, and that their colonies within one year contain about 160 individuals compared to 60 in a single-species colony.
It will not be known whether the hybrid offspring are fertile or sterile until the colonies reach about five years of age, when new kings and queens typically begin to reproduce, Su said.
If they can reproduce, the hybrid termites could take on the invasive qualities of their parent species and spread beyond Florida, researchers said.
Su added that although many people use pesticides that kill some termites, there are baits available that can eliminate colonies over time. (Reporting by Barbara Liston; Editing by Jonathan Kaminsky, Sandra Maler and Eric Beech)