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Caution: Internet Hoax – Mulch and Termites
by Jean R. Natter
April 30, 2006

A recent email with the subject “Fw: Important if you buy mulch this year” warns that “Formosan Termites will be the bonus in many of those bags” because the mulch originates from infested lumber and downed trees following cleanup from the hurricane in New Orleans.

The advice seems plausible at first glance, in part because it mentions the Louisiana State University (LSU) web site ( http://www.agctr.lsu.edu/termites/ ) as the apparent source.

But the claim crumbles when you read LSU’s write-ups, also when you consider termite biology. The bottom line is that truthful elements are mixed with erroneous conclusions.

It’s true that Formosan subterranean termites (Coptotermes formosanus) can cause major damage within a short time. An average colony has 350,000 members, and could number in the millions.

But it’s also true that all counties infested with Formosan termites are under quarantine: no wood debris, infested or not, can be moved outside the quarantine area; and mulch is sent to landfills within quarantined areas.

Perhaps the most convincing input debunking the hoax comes from the Mulch and Soil Council where a press release ( http://www.mulchandsoilcouncil.org/Inforesorce/Pressrelease5.html ) states “According to experts, the practical survivability of a soft-bodied insect withstanding the violent environment inside the mulch grinding process or the high temperatures (130°F – 160°F) of mulch packages and pallet stacks is extremely unlikely.”

Further clarification is in the Council’s special advisory ( http://www.mulchandsoilcouncil.org/Membersonly/advisory.html ) which says that “Termites are soft-bodied insects with specific moisture and temperature requirements for survival. The Formosan subterranean termite would not survive intense heat or cold and prefers a moist environment at approximately 14°C (57°F).”

The advisory continues “Dr. Ronald Shumack, Associate Dean of the College of Agriculture and Head of the Department of Horticulture (Emeritus) at Auburn University confirms that the likelihood of termites surviving in packaged mulch is highly improbable. In a shrink-wrapped pallet of bagged mulch, high temperatures, limited air and diminished moisture represent a hostile environment for termite survival. Through three decades of observation and experience, Dr. Shumack reports no known incidences of termite infestation with packaged mulch products and states, ‘I am very concerned with the content of this [Internet] message. I have never seen a case where termites have survived the grinding, screening, bagging, palletizing and shipping. The insect would have to live under conditions that are extremely difficult to survive.’”

Then, too, when you consider termite biology, the good news is that a termite can’t survive on its own. It must have three castes among its companions: reproductives (queen and king) to produce eggs; workers to forage, feed and groom the others, also to care for the queen; and soldiers to protect the colony against invaders.

So, even if one or several workers did survive in a bag of mulch – no reproductives; no eggs; no hatch; no future colony. Goodbye termites!

If you’d like further information, these publications discuss the biology and management of subterranean termites while the web sites debunk the hoax:

Jean wrote this for her MG newsletter. She is an Oregon State University MG Volunteer, Washington County

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