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Consumer Reports

Catnip stamps out termites | (UPI) The herb that drives cats crazy also has a deadly effect on termites, researchers reported Tuesday.

The revelation about catnip could lead to the development of a minimally toxic insecticide to keep at bay or kill pesky termites that burrow below vulnerable houses, researchers added.

"We treated sand with the essential oil of catnip," said Chris Peterson, entomologist at the U.S. Forest Service in Starkville, Miss. "The oil gives catnip its characteristic odor and is what cats respond to."

As Peterson reported at the American Chemical Society annual meeting, his lab research showed two-inches of sand doused with catnip oil prevented termites from tunneling through and killed them at high doses.

"It provides a chemical barrier so termites can't get into a building," Peterson said, explaining if catnip is made into an insecticide, it could be applied underneath house foundations or trenches backfilled with soil.

However, catnip's strong odor and half-life pose problems in transforming the herb into a practical insect poison. Although effective against termites, many people find the smell offensive, Peterson said. Also, some cats cannot resist it. As a termiticide, the effective dose is much higher than contained in the original plants. For this reason, surrounding a house with the flowering plant will not save it from a termite attack, Peterson noted.

In fact, he said, even if buckets of the essential oil are poured around a house, it will not be effective for very long, he explained. The oil does not like to stick around. To be useful under and around homes, researchers will have to modify the oil molecules to make them more persistent. They only stay put for a few weeks while current termiticides used this way persist for years.

There is a possibility the oil could be used for short-term use, Peterson said. For example, it could be used to treat a small group of termites nesting in a wall or as a mosquito repellant. Peterson explained in previous research he found catnip to be effective against mosquitoes, although the herb has not been tested for safety.

"Natural does not mean non-toxic," said Phillip Pellitteri, extension entomologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Cocaine comes from plants, he noted.

"If it's toxic to insects, it can be toxic to others," Pellitteri said, adding in defense of artificial compounds, "sometimes there is not much difference between synthetic and natural."

Whether catnip can produce an effective insecticide will depend on the basic biology of the oil, Pellitteri said. "When we understand how it really works, it will open up doors."

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