Troublesome termites

Published August 16, 2015
Healthy soil equals healthy plants
Healthy soil equals healthy plants

Termites — or ‘white ants’ as they are often called — appear to be causing a startling number of gardening headaches of late as, judging from a recent deluge of mail detailing their destructive activities, they voraciously munch their greedy way through everything from mature trees down to emerging seedlings. These said ‘termites’ would, if they knew, probably be proud to stand up and take a bow for being awarded this mighty ‘honour’ — an honour, I hasten to add, they are most certainly not due!

Termites are often — and quite wrongly — blamed for all manner of misdeeds but, whilst they are definitely no angels, they are nowhere near as bad, garden wise that is, as is claimed. This claim is reinforced by anyone standing to make a financial profit from their extermination.

Please do not misunderstand — termites are lethal to anything made of wood, materials containing high levels of cellulose and even to some plastics. They are capable of destroying the entire fabric of houses and other buildings, especially wooden parts such as beams, doors, wooden flooring, cupboards, etc. and if spotted inside a building, they must be dealt with immediately if not sooner.


Contrary to popular belief termites do not attack healthy plants; their presence is an indication that there is something seriously wrong


In the garden, however, unless they are in the process of migrating towards a building of course, it is quite a different story.

Termites — the kind we have here in Pakistan — do not attack living plants except, on occasion, they will eat the crunchy, drying out, stalks of standing wheat and related crops being grown on a commercial basis. It is unlikely that you will be cultivating these in your home garden. They have also been known to nibble on drying out / dying back sunflower stems but, on the whole, they leave living, growing, thriving, green plants well alone.

Being wood-eaters, they will eat any woody plant debris — dead branches, dead roots, fallen trees, etc. be these above or below the ground: they do not do devour the roots of living trees but have been known to snack on the roots of diseased / dying trees / shrubs / plants. If termites are seen to be eating what you think is living plant material then take this as an indication that there is something seriously wrong with the plant.

Garden hygiene is the basis of termite control
Garden hygiene is the basis of termite control

Termites are, in many respects, a natural recycling machine for those woody bits on or in the soil which would otherwise take years to decompose. It stands to reason that if you know that your garden has a termite colony — or that there is one close by —to leave wood / woody plant debris around, to even consider building a ‘Hugelkuture’ mound or to install wooden seating / tables is an open invitation for termites to move in.

If termites are evident in your locality then there are various ways — including being scrupulously careful not to offer them anything to eat — to keep them at bay.

• Sand barriers — these are sand filled trenches dug around the garden boundary and filled with sharp sand. The sand should be rough / sharp not fine as termites can tunnel through fine sand but avoid sharp sand grains which hurt them. The trenches must be at least 18-24 inches deep, 24-30 inches wide, be heaped up six to 12 inches above ground level, topped up as needed and kept in pristine condition.

• Termite nests can be as much as six feet underground and digging them up — short of using a mechanical digger — is a major task but if this can be done and their queen removed, they will stop breeding.

Maintaining soil health is essential
Maintaining soil health is essential

• Killing off ‘worker termites’ whose job is to gather food for the below ground colony can, in time, starve the colony out of existence. Water soluble, organic Borax (Boric acid) — this is a natural salt — can be ‘watered’ on foraging termites to kill them — they do not die immediately though, they go back to their nest and die there and are eaten by other termites inside the nest and these die too! As it is not poisonous to humans / animals / birds, mix the borax according to instructions on the packet as the strength differs widely. Do not apply repeatedly over a long period of time in the same spot as this could result in a salt build-up in the soil and be damaging for plants. You can also mix Borax with fine sugar and place this ‘bait’ adjacent to an established termite path: foraging termites will carry this, in grains, back to their nest where other termites will feast and die.

• The safest non-organic solution is to water foraging termites with a mild solution of potassium permanganate (pinky) which, especially in direct sunlight, oxidises them and they turn to powder.

• Maintain soil health using organic methods: healthy soil means healthy plants, plus, it increases the density of natural predators, earthworms for example, which prey on termite larvae.

• Do not over-water your garden: termites need moisture to survive and just love wet conditions. Improve garden drainage if needed.

• Chickens adore termites of any shape and size: if realistic — keep chickens!

• Persevere: termites take time to eradicate.

Please continue sending your gardening queries to Izahrahnasir@hotmail.comI. Remember to include your location. The writer will not respond directly by email. Emails with attachments will not be opened.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, August 16th, 2015

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