The mighty mushroom wears many hats. From bringing us lifesaving antibiotics, to enhancing a delicious risotto, to making Alice shrink small and grow tall, the roles mushrooms play are as endless as the number of different species. Well here’s yet another, slightly unexpected, use for our versatile fungi friend.
Picture this: you’re a typical downtown homeowner, drinking a beer on your front porch on a Sunday afternoon. Suddenly, your chair, with you on it, falls through the porch, embarrassingly spilling your local microbrew. A neighbour sagely looks over, shakes his head, and says one word, “Termites.”
Toronto has about 1000 city blocks infested with termites. These unwanted houseguests usually costs the homeowners at least $1,500 to clean up, meaning that collectively, Toronto homeowners spend somewhere around $120 million dollars per year trying to kill termites.
What’s to be done? You could try chemical treatment, with a chemical like permethrin. This does not kill the termites, but does block termites from entering your house, as long as you have a chemical-soaked barrier between your house and the termite nest. Although the various chemicals available out there do the trick, they can be harmful to cats, bees, butterflies, and may or may not be linked to Parkinson’s Disease.
What do mushrooms have to do with this you ask? There are several mushrooms that have wonderful and wacky effects on termites. Take the Matarhizium family of mushrooms, for example. These are present in soils across the world, do not harm mammals, and cause no known allergic reactions in humans. Spores of this mushroom family land on insects (like termites and carpenter ants), then grow their mushroom filaments inside the insect itself. The body of the insect, at the end of this process, collapses in a heap, out of which strange looking mushrooms grow.
The theory of how this fungus might be used in termite control is fairly straightforward. First, obtain a sample of the correct fungus from somewhere (Google it). Next, grow a bunch of the mushroom on anything the termites might eat (say, white rice). Put the mushroom-infested rice in an area where you see termites or their tunnels, let them happily take the rice into their nests, and…Boom! A few days later millions of termites are dead. Not just dead, but dead with mushrooms growing out of their heads.
The best part? Firstly, word travels fast. Other termites will know if this fungus is present in your yard, and will (understandably) avoid your house for fear of falling prey to the same mushroom body invasion as their friends. Secondly, compared to chemical pesticides, mushroom termite control could be more effective (since it actually kills the nest), cost less (since you don’t have to re-apply it), and avoid the use of chemical pesticides that can be harmful to the environment, and in some cases, our health.
*You’re probably wondering how you can do this in your own home. If you’re really keen, you could read Paul Stamet’s book Mycelium Running, where he talks about how he uses mushrooms to kill insects, and then try to copy his process. If you do, please send me pictures and details!
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Cover image: Andrew Stichbury
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