Q: Mike: Thanks to you, we know that using the wrong kind of mulch can cause problems. But we need some kind of mulch for weed control. The attached warning is making it way across the Internet, raising fears that mulch contaminated with "Formosan Termites" is heading north this spring from New Orleans.
"Be very careful about buying mulch this year. After the hurricane in New Orleans many trees were blown over. These trees were then turned into mulch and the state is trying to get rid of tons and tons of this mulch to any state or company who will come and haul it away. So it will be showing up in Home Depot and Lowe's at dirt cheap prices with one huge problem; Formosan Termites will be the bonus in many of those bags. New Orleans is one of the few areas in the country were (sic) the Formosan Termites (sic) has gotten a strong hold and most of the trees blown down were already badly infested with those termites. Now we may have the worst case of transporting a problem to all parts of the country that we have ever had. These termites can eat a house in no time at all and we have no good control against them, so tell your friends that own homes to avoid cheap mulch and know were it came from."
Is there any truth to this? Is there anything we can do to protect ourselves without eliminating the use of mulch? Thanks.
--Bob in Lumberton, New Jersey--& many others, including Sandy in McGregor, Texas; Ray at the Pentagon; Frank in Shreveport, LA; & Linda in Lambertville, NJ, who seemed to think that it might well be legitimate, because the link at the end of the email did check out.
Actually, Linda, although that link—to a termite information page posted by the Louisiana State University Agricultural Center—does cleverly seem to reinforce the legitimacy of this email, it did NOT "check out". In fact, even the most cursory look at the articles on those pages reveals that the link actually refutes many of the so-called 'facts' the email claims to contain.
But I already knew it was somewhere between a full-fledged hoax and myth-information. Formosan subterranean termites are a problem in many areas, not just New Orleans. They take quite a while to damage a house, not 'overnight'. There are effective controls against them. The state of Louisiana would NEVER risk devastating lawsuits by deliberately spreading such a dangerous pest. Those stores wouldn't risk it either (they are legally responsible for the safety of products they sell, after all). Wood mulch tends to be a local product; it would be prohibitively expensive to ship it very far with gas prices at near-record highs (and when there's already an over-abundance of locally-available wood chips and bark just about everywhere). It's unlikely that termites would survive the chipping and bagging process. And on and on…
Termite expert Dr. Dennis Ring, Professor of Entomology at LSU's Agricultural Center and author or co-author of most of the fine articles on that (very legitimate) website, was happy to hear that I had already figured it for a fake, and adds that the worst error in the email is the assertion that Louisiana is deliberately shipping infested mulch out of state, when the opposite is true.
"Quarantines have been in place since last October to prevent such a thing from happening", he explains. "You can't ship ANY cellulose—paper, cardboard or wood—outside Southern Louisiana unless you can certify that the material is termite-free."
Now, these Formosan subterranean termites ARE bad news—Dr. Ring says they're bigger and eat more than our native subterranean termites; and they eat the insides of live healthy trees, which our natives do not. But he adds that they've been in the United States for over 60 years—the smart money says they hitched a ride here on ships returning from the Pacific Theatre after WWII—and haven't spread all that far beyond the four original port cities they entered. They didn't really even show up in New Orleans—where, like many tourists they have shown a preference for the French Quarter—until the 1960s.
The map of their infestation areas reveals that they've mostly hugged the coastline. Southern Louisiana and Florida have it the worst. Also affected are Texas, Georgia, Alabama and the Carolinas—mostly coastal, but sometimes in land; they've traveled all the way up to Memphis for instance, perhaps for the music. They are spread by people, explains Dr. Ring, with old railroad ties their number one method of travel. They live in dirt and wood outdoors, so if you're moving out of an infested area, leave your garden and plants behind.
Luckily, they need it moist and hot to thrive—an average temperature of 55 degrees and 62 % humidity. If you're in hot and humid land and think you have horrid house guests, don't panic, says Dr. Ring, you have time to consider your options. When these Formosan subterraneans damage a house to the point of collapse, the owners have likely been ignoring evidence for some time. Visible signs of infestation include the mud tubes they build to protect themselves when they venture out into the open and "swarming"--winged termites leaving the house to establish new colonies, which they will be doing from now through July.
The best way to prevent Formosan subterranean termites from infesting your home is to "build smart" in areas they inhabit, he explains. Use borate-treated wood and other termite-resistant materials in construction; don't have any wood in direct contact with the soil; don't have any plants within three feet of your home; never allow tree limbs to touch the house; and have regular termite inspections. ( Actually, he suggests that homeowners everywhere follow these and other 'smart building' practices—to lessen the chance of any insect or other wood-destroying organism attacking your home.)
And even though these bad actors are NOT lurking in bags of mulch down at The Home Depot, no one—North, South, East or West—should be using wood mulch near their home anyway. As we often warn, wood mulches are very bad for plants, breed a nuisance fungus that will permanently stain your siding with little tar-like spores, and can lead to termite damage without any termites being in the mulch when you get it.
NATIVE subterranean termites are ubiquitous—they're also everywhere—and ANY moisture conserving cover that goes right up to the side of your home will invite them to dine on your doorway, even stone. Yes, they probably like wood mulches better, because they can snack as they travel, but all they really need is cover. So leave at least a six-inch area open around your home—whether you live in Formosan land or not! (See this previous Question of the Week for more mulch and termite details):
For more information on the situation in Louisiana, follow the links on the LSU Agricultural Center's main site: http://www.lsuagcenter.com
And for you incurable skeptics out there, here are links to reports on the "termites in your mulch" email at TWO different websites that specialize in Internet hoaxes.