Is something hiding in your firewood?

Cooking on the woodstove. (Photo provided)

I grew up in a home with a fireplace in the living room. My folks used it only on really cold nights, in addition to the furnace, or when the power went out. It was reassuring to know that even during power outages, we could build a fire to stay warm and comfortable.

Throughout my adult life, I’ve heated all of my homes with wood; either as a primary or a supplementary heating fuel. In fact, my wood stove is an integral part of my life and an indispensable emergency heat source. In a region as cold and prone to power outages as this, I simply wouldn’t be without one.

The pleasure of a fire

There’s something about the ambience of a wood fire, the smell of the wood and the wood smoke, the snap, crackle, pop of kindling wood starting to blaze, gazing into the fire, stirring the coals, tossing another log onto an open fire or into the woodstove. And there’s absolutely nothing that compares to the soothing, radiant warmth you feel when you come in from the cold and enter a room with a wood fire burning.

As far as I’m concerned, the warmth is unparalleled. And I really love how that warmth leads everyone — people and pets — to gather around the fire, when coming in from the cold. In many ways, it helps make a house a home. For me, it’s one of life’s greatest little pleasures.

Sourcing firewood

Locally, firewood is readily available. It’s a renewable, in fact sustainable fuel resource. And it’s still relatively inexpensive. Many of us cut firewood off of our forestland or woodlots, while others purchase firewood annually from area woodcutters and firewood suppliers.

Firewood pests

We take it for granted that northern New York is home to many of the most desirable firewood species in the entire United States: Sugar maple, American beech, black cherry, yellow birch, white birch, white oak, black locust, ash, elm, apple and hophornbeam (ironwood).

Some of these tree species provide excellent homes for a wide variety of over-wintering insects, however, especially if the trees have been standing dead or the firewood has been left on the ground to dry. Flies, mosquitoes, wasps, ground beetles, springtails and earwigs, as well as insect-like animals such as spiders, millipedes and woodlice (sowbugs) will often choose spaces in and under woodpiles, logs, or bark to overwinter.

As the firewood is brought indoors and allowed to warm, these critters, if they’ve been brought into the house unnoticed, may wake from hibernation. Once awake, these pest, believing that it’s spring, will often make their way to sunlit windows in the home.

Generally, awakening insects present no danger whatsoever and can be controlled simply and easily by vacuuming them up. They don’t pose a threat to people, pets, plants or household furnishings. They won’t re-infest structural or furniture wood. And they won’t cause any real damage to the firewood. Nonetheless, these insects may be considered a nuisance by the very fact that they’re present.

Unfortunately, some firewood tree species may also provide homes for wood destroying insects, such as carpenter ants and powderpost beetles, which do pose the threat of infestation, but only if the correct conditions exist. For example, if wood infested with carpenter ants were to be stored in an area where structural wood was wet or starting to show signs of decay, the carpenter ants could try to nest in the structural wood. Although it’s possible, this scenario is highly unlikely.

It’s not uncommon to see small piles of sawdust or hear the faint rustling or gnawing of insects in woodpiles. Wood with the bark still attached is more likely to be a home to these insects than wood with the bark removed. In fact, many insects will attack only wood with the bark still on it. Although debarking is extremely effective, it most certainly is not a practical solution.

Very few insects are able to develop and/or survive in firewood that has been properly cut, seasoned and stored. Since they become active during the growing season (April through October), it is best to cut firewood during the dormant season and to immediately pile the logs off of the ground and under cover. This promotes rapid and thorough drying of the inner bark before seasonal insect activity begins.

Wood dries more rapidly if a greater surface area is exposed to the air. Therefore, immediate blocking, splitting and stacking of firewood, off of the ground and under cover, is the best practice. Firewood should always be stored out of doors. Stacking it near the house is convenient, but stacking firewood away from the house and bringing in only a few days’ supply at a time will minimize the likelihood of an insect problem occurring. The use of chemical pesticides on firewood is not recommended.

Occasionally, mice or rats will make a nest in a woodpile and may be uncovered while stacking or moving wood. It’s also possible that a snake that’s been feeding on mice or insects will be uncovered, as well.

For more information visit franklin.cce.cornell.edu/energy/heating-with-wood.


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