For Release March 12, 2006

Termite Alert!

by Chuck Otte, Geary County Extension Agent

There's been a lot of talk recently about termites. That's probably a good thing because termites are a real threat in our area, and the coming of spring, and hopefully a few more showers will cause termites to be swarming. But the real bustle of late has not been about our native termites, but about Formosan termites.

There has been a rash of e-mails zipping about the country the past couple of weeks alerting homeowners to the risk of railroad ties and wood mulch coming into the region from the hurricane ravaged south. With all the damage to trees from Katrina and Rita, a lot of the trees might try to be be salvaged for whatever use they could find for them and mulch is a pretty common use. But before you get in a panic, let's look at the facts.

Formosan termites arrived in the United States in the 1960s in infested wood from overseas shipments. This infested wood came into ports in the southern US and the tiny foreign termites found a new home. Out native termites need to be in contact with the soil to keep the colony alive. The queen and the nest is always in the soil. Formosan termites do not have this same need. They exist quite happily with the queen and the nest housed in wood, totally away from soil contact.

Formosan termites are quite a bit more aggressive than our native termites. The damage they have done in southern regions, especially New Orleans, has been amazing, if not down right scary. Newer termite control products have helped, but they are still a serious threat. They are a serious enough threat, in fact, that there are quarantines and regulations prohibiting the movement of infested, or potentially infested, products out of the known Formosan termite areas. Mulch that is generated from infested regions is only supposed to be disposed of in designated landfills in that region. So any movement of these materials out of the deep south is illegal and agricultural and law enforcement officials are monitoring this very closely. But we know that that may not stop certain individuals from trying to do so.

The Formosan termite is a tropical insect. One of the reasons it is so destructive is that it never has to go through a cold weather period that slows down it's activity, unlike our native termites. More importantly though, it has been pretty well established that Formosan termites won't survive winters north of about 33.5 degrees north latitude. Junction City lies just north of the 39th latitude. The northern limit of the Formosan termites survival zone is roughly Dallas.

Could Formosan termites come into our region in mulch or wood products? Sure they could. But keep in mind that a few hundred termites without a queen will simply feed and then die of old age. If a Formosan termite queen, and a few hundred workers were introduced into our area, they may try to establish a colony. But it is doubtful that they would survive the eight or more years needed to get the colony big enough to swarm and spread.

Homeowners need to be alert to the risk of termites in mulch. With bagged mulch, the mulching process usually kills most all insects present. If you are using home or locally prepared mulch, there may be termites present. You can reduce this risk by spreading the mulch and then spraying it with an insecticide that will control ants and termites. Or contact me for other options of dealing with these pests. Yes, we have termites here and they are a risk. But they can be dealt with effectively. Be alert, but don't panic about risks that are unlikely to happen!


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