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Louisiana Termites
Q: Mike: Thanks to you, we knowthat using the wrong kind of mulch can cause problems. But we need somekind of mulch for weed control. The attached warning is making it wayacross 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 inNew Orleans many trees were blown over. These trees were then turnedinto mulch and the state is trying to get rid of tons and tons of thismulch to any state or company who will come and haul it away. So itwill be showing up in Home Depot and Lowe's at dirt cheap prices withone huge problem; Formosan Termites will be the bonus in many of thosebags. New Orleans is one of the few areas in the country were (sic) theFormosan Termites (sic) has gotten a strong hold and most of the treesblown down were already badly infested with those termites. Now we mayhave the worst case of transporting a problem to all parts of thecountry that we have ever had. These termites can eat a house in notime at all and we have no good control against them, so tell yourfriends 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 protectourselves without eliminating the use of mulch? Thanks,
                    --Bob in Lumberton, NewJersey--& many others, including Sandy in McGregor, Texas; Ray atthe Pentagon; Frank in Shreveport, LA; & Linda in Lambertville, NJ,who seemed to think that it might well be legitimate, because "the linkat the end of the email did check out."
Actually, Linda, although that link—to a termite information page posted by the Louisiana State UniversityAgricultural Center—does cleverly seem to reinforce the legitimacy ofthis email, it did NOT "check out". In fact, even the most cursory lookat the articles on those pages reveals that the link actually refutesmany of the so-called 'facts' the email claims to contain.

But I already knew it was somewhere between a full-fledged hoax andmyth-information. Formosan subterranean termites are a problem in manyareas, not just New Orleans. They take quite awhile to damage a house,not 'overnight'. There are effective controls against them. The stateof Louisiana would NEVER risk devastating lawsuits by deliberatelyspreading 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 beprohibitively expensive to ship it very far with gas prices atnear-record highs (and when there's already an over-abundance oflocally-available wood chips and bark just about everywhere). It'sunlikely that termites would survive the chipping and bagging process.And on and on…

Termite expert Dr. Dennis Ring, Professor of Entomology at LSU'sAgricultural Center and author or co-author of most of the finearticles on that (very legitimate) website, was happy to hear that Ihad already figured it for a fake, and adds that the worst error in theemail is the assertion that Louisiana is deliberately shipping infestedmulch out of state, when the opposite is true.

"Quarantines have been in place since last October to prevent such athing from happening", he explains. "You can't ship ANYcellulose—paper, cardboard or wood—outside Southern Louisiana unlessyou can certify that the material is termite-free."

Now, these Formosan subterranean termites ARE bad news—Dr. Ring saysthey're bigger and eat more than our native subterranean termites; andthey 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 60years—the smart money says they hitched a ride here on ships returningfrom the Pacific Theatre after WWII—and haven't spread all that farbeyond the four original port cities they entered. They didn't reallyeven show up in New Orleans—where, like many tourists they have shown apreference for the French Quarter—until the 1960s.

The mapof their infestation areas reveals that they've mostly hugged thecoastline. Southern Louisiana and Florida have it the worst. Alsoaffected are Texas, Georgia, Alabama and the Carolinas—mostly coastal,but sometimes inland; they've traveled all the way up to Memphis forinstance, perhaps for the music. They are spread by people, explainsDr. 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 aninfested area, leave your garden and plants behind.

Luckily, they need it moist and hot to thrive—an average temperature of55 degrees and 62 % humidity. If you're in hot and humid land and thinkyou have horrid houseguests, don't panic, says Dr. Ring, you have timeto consider your options. When these Formosan subterraneans damage ahouse to the point of collapse, the owners have likely been ignoringevidence for some time. Visible signs of infestation include the mudtubes they build to protect themselves when they venture out into theopen and "swarming"--winged termites leaving the house to establish newcolonies, which they will be doing from now through July.

The best way to prevent Formosan subterranean termites from infestingyour home is to "build smart" in areas they inhabit, he explains. Useborate-treated wood and other termite-resistant materials inconstruction; don't have any wood in direct contact with the soil;don't have any plants within three feet of your home; never allow treelimbs to touch the house; and have regular termite inspections.(Actually, he suggests that homeowners everywhere follow these andother 'smart building' practices—to lessen the chance of any insect orother wood-destroying organism attacking your home.)

And even though these bad actors are NOT lurking in bags of mulch downat The Home Depot, no one—North, South, East or West—should be usingwood mulch near their home anyway. As we often warn, wood mulches arevery bad for plants, breed a nuisance fungus that will permanentlystain your siding with little tar-like spores, and can lead to termitedamage without any termites being in the mulch when you get it.

NATIVE subterranean termites are ubiquitous—they're also everywhere—andANY moisture conserving cover that goes right up to the side of yourhome will invite them to dine on your doorway, even stone. Yes, theyprobably like wood mulches better, because they can snack as theytravel, but all they really need is cover. So leave at least a six-incharea open around your home—whether you live in Formosan land ornot!  (See this previous Questionof the Week for more mulch and termite details):  
For more information on the situation in Louisiana, follow the links onthe LSU Agricultural Center's main site:

And for you incurable skeptics out there, here are links to reports onthe "termites in your mulch" email at THREE different websites thatspecialize in Internet hoaxes.


You Bet Your Garden   Question of the Week  ©2006Mike McGrath

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