Steve Broadbent, Regional Director of Ensystex, shares an insightful overview of the changes in termite management practices over the last quarter century.
Our industry has gone through a tremendous period of change in the past 25 years, especially in the field of termite management. The disruptive event that enabled this period of growth and innovation was the banning of the cyclodiene termiticides (aldrin, chlordane, and heptachlor) in July 1995. As someone who was supportive of removing these actives from the market, due to their environmental persistence and impact on birdlife in particular, I well recall my disagreement with the stalwarts of AEPMA at the time, as they invested heavily and fought strongly against the ban. Many argued that the loss of these actives would lead to termites decimating Australian homes, cost the industry millions of dollars in lost revenue, and that it would be the ‘thin edge of the wedge’, leading to many more pesticides being banned, if it were permitted to happen.
The reality is that the opposite occurred. Our industry has thrived and grown, our professionalism has improved immensely, we have ‘lost’ no other pesticides, and we are held in greater respect than ever before. The removal of the cyclodiene insecticides from the market provided the opportunity for alternative solutions to progress and for new concepts in termite management to evolve and succeed. There is no doubt that the cyclodiene termiticides were extremely effective and long-lasting, even when used at rates well below their approved label rates. We used to refer to them as being ‘very forgiving’, a euphemism for the fact that they could be applied poorly and still work, which created a sub-culture of poor practice and cut-throat pricing. The low prices of the cyclodiene products severely limited the opportunity for alternative solutions to develop. Alternatives were not only significantly more expensive, they did not remain effective for 30 or more years either!
Bifenthrin takes centre stage
Chlorpyrifos from Dow AgroSciences was the only alternative termiticide in the market when the ban took effect. Not only was it around twice the price, but it also didn’t offer the same longevity and there were many concerns about its performance. Coincidentally, 1995 also saw FMC launch bifenthrin, a repellent termiticide, which offered a more complete termite management profile. Whilst it was more expensive again, it soon developed a market leadership position in most termite treatment segments, other than the most price-sensitive market segment of pre-construction termite treatments. Bifenthrin of course remains in the market as a proven high-performance termiticide and insecticide. Chlorpyrifos never achieved the same market success and, while it remains as an option for professional pest managers to use in Australia, it has largely disappeared, due to concerns after it was removed from the market in the United States.
Soil-applied cyclodiene termiticides had been the sole means for protecting new buildings from termites and an entire industry had evolved focused on applying large volumes of these liquid termiticides as quickly and cheaply as possible. Typical pre-construction termite treatment costs to builders were often below the actual cost of the chemical alone, with leading companies in the segment defending their pricing as a ‘loss leader’ for the ongoing business generated.
The emergent barrier market
Whilst hand-spray treatments with these newer termiticides continued to dominate the market, opportunities arose for pesticide-free solutions such as graded stone and stainless-steel termite barriers. Termimesh innovatively led the expansion of this market segment through its incorporation of a concrete slab, poured to Australian Standards 2870 and 3600, as an integral element in the protection of buildings from termites. This development enabled the application of the product to perimeters and penetrations, rather than as a complete under-slab system, which in turn opened the market for chemically impregnated sheet materials to follow the same path. Twenty years later, these sheet materials dominate the pre-construction market.
Changes in application techniques
The next drivers of change came from Local Government Authorities expressing concerns at the use of hand-spray treatments applied to soil beneath slabs, prior to their construction. This was because the newer products did not provide the same longevity that the cyclodiene products had previously provided, and there was much unease about their use in sandstone areas surrounding greater Sydney. There were also increasing concerns about chemical spray drift as the market became more environmentally aware. This led to improvements in how the products were applied, using low-pressure, high volume spray equipment that delivered a coarse droplet size. More particularly, it allowed the emergence of chemical reticulation systems. The latter provided for the reapplication of the chemical in future years, to maintain the protection of the home.
In 2014, an updated Australian Standard AS 3660 Termite Management Part 1: New Building Work was released, which intensified the movement for change away from hand spraying. Section 7.1.1 Soil Chemical in this Standard clearly advises: “Chemical termite management systems applied under concealed and inaccessible areas shall be replenishable via a reticulation system providing an even and continuous distribution of chemical into the soil.” This has served, as was intended, to largely stop hand spraying. Although, bewilderingly, hand spraying has managed to survive in Western Australia for the protection of homes prior to construction.
For post-construction treatments, the exclusive use of cyclodiene termiticides – supported by arsenic trioxide, a Schedule 7 Dangerous Poison that was used as a dust for colony elimination – was standard practice for nearly 50 years. The 1990s saw several paradigm changes. In 1998 Bayer launched the first non-repellent termiticide, imidacloprid. Raja Mahendran was the product manager and brought me in as a consultant on the launch project. I recall sitting in on a senior management strategy meeting where Raja was under tremendous pressure to defend his pricing model that was below overseas expectations, with him finally being curtly told it was “on his head” that they succeed. History shows imidacloprid was a great success.
Termite management has always been a price-competitive field and I have no doubt that Raja’s tenacity enabled imidacloprid to gain the market edge it needed to succeed. Imidacloprid remains a successful termiticide in Australia, especially in the southern states, and internationally it remains very strong in the market. For example, in South Africa and parts of Southeast Asia it is the number one termiticide active. A seminal year in the termite market, 1997 also saw Dow Agrosciences launch the first termite baiting system with hexaflumuron as the active. This was a radical change in how termites were managed and allowed the industry to develop away from using large volumes of liquid applied termiticides and rod injecting under concrete. The market positioning for this product provided for supply to only a few, carefully selected companies. Their subsequent sales success created a strong demand for alternative baiting options within the larger pest industry.
Fipronil: A new era
The next leap forward in innovation arrived in 2002 with the launch of Exterra, a more widely accessible termite baiting system from Ensystex, using chlorfluazuron, and the introduction of fipronil, as the second non-repellent termiticide in the market. Originally developed by Rhône-Poulenc, fipronil was launched in Australia by BASF. These two products became the ‘hottest’ products in the treatment of termite infestations in existing buildings and have spawned many similar products as their patents expired.
The last 25 years have seen unprecedented change, not only to the arsenal of treatment options available to pest management professionals, but also to business management systems, professional standards, information systems, and training. We have observed our industry thrive through increased competition and market segmentation and seen AEPMA develop as a strong voice for our industry. In the early days of termite baiting, I recall some pest managers bemoaning the end of the termite control industry, as baits would eliminate all the termite colonies. Yet again, the market has only continued to grow. In the baiting segment we have seen numerous additional baits launched, together with new actives, bistrifluron and novaluron. The registration of new actives for termite treatments continues, with chlorantraniliprole launched a few years ago, and most recently, broflanilide.
In the last 25 years, many termite products and management systems have come and quietly disappeared, but none have been lost to regulatory bans. We have as an industry taken control of our destiny and for professional pest managers the opportunity for market differentiation and profitability, while adopting ethical business models, is greater than ever before, leaving our industry well positioned for the future. We have come through a global pandemic with more efficient business models. Climate change will present new management challenges, but it will also bring new opportunities, not least of which will be increased pest pressures with resultant further demand for our services.
Steve Broadbent, Regional Director, Ensystex Australasia