The Formosan termite was accidentally introduced from East Asia into the Southern U.S. shortly after World War II. Since that time, it has infested the following southern states: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, North and South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. In Louisiana, it is considered to be the number one damage-causing insect pest. Annually, this wood-consuming pest is responsible for about $1 billion in damage to homes, other wooden structures, utility poles, and live trees. For many years, New Orleans has been designated as “Ground Zero” in the scientific battle to understand and control this termite species. One of the ways that this pest moves to new areas to create new infestations and devastating damage is through recycled wood. Strong warnings have been continually issued in southern states about reusing lumber from old buildings for new building projects. The primary mode of transfer in the landscape appears to be in old railroad ties that are used for landscaping purposes and in utility poles. Even though they have been treated chemically (i.e. creosote) the harsh chemicals may not always get into the center of the ties or poles, thus allowing transport and new infestations of this pest.
In 2005, New Orleans and the immediate areas were ravaged by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which resulted in countless numbers of trees being destroyed. Since that time, tireless efforts have been underway throughout the damaged areas to clean up the mess created by these powerful storms. Toppled and broken trees were removed and processed into wood chips and mulch. Daily, multitudes of trailer trucks could be be seen carrying these wood products away from the clean-up areas. From this activity, tremendous concern has was generated about the potential to accidentally move the Formosan Termite to new locals via this process. In fact, starting in February of 2006, the rumor mill began churning out dire warnings about the potential for the mass movement of this pest by humans via mulch and wood chips. A simple web search will produce many sites that warn of catastrophe. So, when it comes to the Formosan Termite, what is fact, what is fiction and what falls into the category of being “remotely possible?”
The following information has been derived from web site articles that were written by expert entomologists with first-hand knowledge of this pest, web sites that interviewed entomologists, and from e-mail list serve groups that are comprised explicitly of entomologists nationally:
- The bottom line is that it is unlikely that Formosan Termites will be moved in wood chips and mulch as long as everyone plays by the rules when removing these products from areas of infestation.
- Louisiana instituted explicit guidelines for removing trees almost immediately following the damage from Hurricane Katrina, which dictates: “Movement of wood or cellulose material is prohibited from the quarantine areas, where Formosan Termite is known to exist, unless it has been fumigated or treated.”
- All woody debris in the quarantine areas is going to an approved landfill within the designated quarantine area. There are a multitude of state and federal agencies that are looking at this debris every day as it is deposited into these landfills.
- If any woody plant material was moved out of the state, without first going to one of the designated landfill areas, then it was done illegally.
Other Pertinent Information:
- It is speculated that piles of wood chips or mulch that sat for months could have possibly become infested with Formosan termite. However, the internal temperatures of mulch piles often exceed what these termites can withstand.
- The Formosan Termite is not known to survive above 35° latitude (approx. southern Virginia) in the United States due to the cold winters.
- Home Depot has released a statement saying that they do not buy mulch from suppliers in the New Orleans area.
- Entomologists that were generally in agreement that the Formosan Termite can not likely survive the mulch-making process, packaging, and transportation in shrink-wrapped bags that expose them to sunlight, high heat and that offer a limited supply of air and moisture.
What To Do:
- If this is of special concern to you, then buy mulch and wood chips from local suppliers that buy and / or produce it locally.
- If a bag of purchased mulch should contain termites, (which is deemed unlikely), contact the place of purchase and the appropriate state agency immediately. In MA, contact the Department of Agricultural Resources (MA DAR) or Robert Childs (Entomologist) at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (413-545-1053, firstname.lastname@example.org).
Written by: Robert Childs