Some of you might have received an email today warning you not to purchase mulch for fear that it contains wood waste from hurricane-ravaged regions of the Southeastern U.S., and will lead to the introduction of the Formosan subterranean termite (Coptotermes formosanus) into your yard and the eventual decimation of the very house you live in:
"If you use mulch around your house 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 Lowes 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 the Formosan Termites 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."
What is the source of this warning? No one seems to know - this is the stuff that urban legends are made of. There is no evidence that anyone is buying up hurricane scraps to sell on the cheap, and the big-box home improvement stores are denying that any of the mulch they sell is from areas damaged by Hurricane Katrina or Rita.
To properly defend against such things as invasive species and urban legends, start by arming yourself with information:
- There is an article being sent around with the termite email, and that part is real. Read the original version, a press release from the Louisiana State University Agricultural Center.
- Two important things to note from the article:
- Hurricane-affected areas that have populations of Formosan subterranean termites have been quarantined. That means no wood is allowed out of the area unless it has been treated for termites.
- The press release is from October 2005, and is aimed at people in the Lousiana area, because there is great concern that termite-infested wood taken from damaged structures will be used to repair or rebuild following the hurricane. This Reuters article suggests New Orleans is already having a bad time of it.
- That said, a quarantine zone for wood products is not a guarantee that any wood that comes from that area is termite-free. Be smart and only get wood and wood products from trusted vendors.
- The Formosan termite has been living in the U.S. for more than 50 years! It's not a new invader. Studies have determined that the termite has temperature and humidity requirements that would make it difficult, if not impossible, to live outside of the Southeast U.S. Also, the process of mulching wood is very desctructive and it would be unlikely (but not impossible) that any termite survived it.
- That said, there is no absolute guarantee that Formosan subterranean termites could not spread to other parts of the country if introduced repeatedly and in sufficient quantities. Stranger things have happened than a species adjusting to a new climate or habitat. Because of this, again, be smart and only buy wood and wood products that have been inspected and deemed free of termites and termite damage. The Mulch and Soil Council recently released this press release assuring purchasers of mulch that MSC-stamped bags have been inspected and do not contain any wood from the hurricane cleanup. But that has been the policy of the MSC for a while now, and it's not because of termites - it's because wood from construction typically contains a pesticide, Chromated Copper Arsenate, that could contaminate groundwater with arsenic if it is used as mulch.
Update 3/9/06: An informative posting to the ma-eppc listserver explains more about the ways that Formosan Subterranean Termites can spread and how it is unlikely to happen via mulch.