[Problems & Solutions] Answers to your tough pest questions

Features - PCT News

April 20, 2006

Termites in Mulch?
Q I have heard about an alert that is being sent via the Internet about the transport of Formosan subterranean termites (FSTs) through mulch. What’s the true story?

A While attending meetings throughout the United States recently, several pest management professionals approached me about this story. The origins of this rumor are vague at best (at least I haven’t been able to uncover the specific source of the rumor). I sent out an e-mail to several researchers and asked their opinion. Let me summarize what I have seen, heard and read.
1. The story that’s been going around says that trees damaged from Hurricane Katrina are being cut up, mulched, bagged and sent up north. Also, part of the story is that two prominent store chains, Lowe’s and Home Depot, were going to carry this “cheap mulch.” The story did not discuss how this was going to happen, just that it would. It did not quote anyone of authority, so once this rumor hit the Internet we were off and running to find sources and experts. Lowe’s and Home Depot denied the possibility, stating their mulch suppliers aren’t from the New Orleans/Gulf Coast area.
2. It would appear that the original “source” of the story (and I use that term carefully), seems to have come from someone making false assumptions following the release of an LSU advisory about the quarantine that exists for transport of green materials from Louisiana and the Gulf Coast area. All the trees and wood debris (most likely some houses destroyed also had FSTs) are restricted, and as such, can’t be moved out of state. Interestingly, one report I read stated that trucks with license plates from Alabama were seen traveling with logs and tree debris. Of course, we do not know if the trucks were going back to Alabama or merely helping transport debris to landfills after the storm.
Whatever the reason, it would appear that perhaps some enterprising people picked up on this advisory, observations and hearsay and spun it into something else.
3. The National Pest Management Association addressed this topic in an alert written by Greg Baumann and Mike Walvogel, an entomologist from North Carolina State Department of Entomology (www.pestworld.org/database/article.asp?articleID=40). In addition, I received comments from other universities, either formally or informally. Interestingly, no one actually came out and said it couldn’t happen. (Also, check out www.snopes.com, an Internet resource that debunks myths. See what they have to say about this rumor at www.snopes.com/inboxer/household/termites.asp.)
This brings us to the point that we have to consider: What are we dealing with here? It is true that many trees destroyed by Katrina may have had FSTs. Many of the trees that were likely damaged or taken down probably had FST damage but had been treated over the last several years via ongoing research on the control of this termite. Also, many utility poles are suspect in New Orleans. Regardless, you have to ask this: Can Formosan subterranean termites survive being mulched? My guess is no. What is yours?
All this considered, let’s consider some other facts. Research has shown that termites do not survive well on mulch. Most infestations (if you want to call them that) in mulch most probably occur from already established colonies in the ground over which the mulch is placed. That being said, there could be exceptions (after all, some homeowners claim the termites came in the mulch). Now there is an expert opinion! I took note that many of the informational pieces about this spent quite a bit of the notice discussing the importance of homeowners to maintain their property and reduce possible conducive situations for termites.
And finally, some reactions I heard from folks in the field included, “Let ’em come!” It would seem that the fear of dwindling termite seasons being discussed by some in the industry makes some think they’d like having FSTs too! Well, it’s important to realize that if Formosan termites spread, we need to have the right tools available to take care of the problem.
If you find FSTs in the mulch in your area find out where the mulch came from.

More flea, “imaginary” calls
Q Are fleas making a comeback like bed bugs? We are getting more calls recently. Also, I am starting to receive more “imaginary” bug calls. Is anyone doing research in this area?

A I believe there are a lot of factors regarding fleas. Maybe it also has to do with the fact that we stopped spraying baseboards in houses on a regular basis. Maybe it is the effect of on-animal products, of which there are several excellent products. However, we still have problems and today we have fewer products to use indoors for control of fleas. That being said I do not see any more difficulty now then we had before. This insect can be especially frustrating and especially to the pet owner or person who bought a home where pets used to be. Look at the biology, where they occur and what the larval habits are. Look at the cleaning of the structure, where pets sleep (good luck if there are cats!) and most importantly, inspect. Try to find the sources and use products, possibly in combination adulticides and IGRs. Do not forget the furniture!
As for the other part of your question, I just saw an excellent presentation by Jerome Goddard from Mississippi State on this subject (and I’ve seen presentations from others, like Mike Potter from the University of Kentucky, on this topic as well). And yes, there is ongoing research. Nancy Hinkle at the University of Georgia is working on the analytical aspect and psychoses of such cases.
“Imaginary” bug calls are tough and we are not the people who perhaps should be offering help in these cases.

The author is president of George Rambo Consulting Services, Seneca, S.C. Fax questions to him at 864/654-2447 or via e-mail at grambo@giemedia.com.