Termite presence in potted plants is not an unusual occurrence. There are several types of termites that are present in and around the home. A current problem in the Southern United States is the Formosan subterranean termite. It is native to East Asia and was brought here in cargo and potted plants. It has gained such a foothold as an invasive species that the U.S. Army Public Health Command has issued information and warnings about this pest.
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Termites live in wood and plant stems because they are made up of cellulose material that is attractive as food and domicile to the pests. Common termites are those found in the walls of homes or rotted wood and stumps. They do a good deed in that they help decompose old woody material and turn it into a beneficial organic compound. They do not eat healthy wood and are only found in places which already have rot or disease issues. Their presence is usually noted when the winged adults emerge in warm days following rain. They also leave behind mud tubes between boards and cracks.
The Formosan Termite
Formosan termites live underground but also form a winged colony. They are voracious tunnelers and eaters and have the ability to cause destruction in a very short time. The colonies are unusually large in comparison to native termites and they have a wide range of habitat preferences. They originally arrived on military cargo ships returning from World War II. There are three castes in the termite colony: the swarmers that have wings, the workers with creamy pale bodies and the soldiers with their formidable mandibles. These pests are now found across the Southern base of the United States; cold temperatures in the upper states have halted their progression there.
Termites can be found in any woody area. Wood mulches are a prime culprit and are a common part of the gardener's materials. Some wood mulches are treated to minimize pest transfer, but the organic gardener does not use products that have been treated and may get mulch with hitchhikers. The garden patio looks so cheery with an old oak barrel planted with annuals, but this is another place termites hide. Often the barrels are old and have been used and the wood is a perfect housing and foraging area. Lastly, the pests can come in on your plants. Imported plants and plants from local nurseries are all suspect. It is important to investigate a plant carefully for signs of disease and pests before purchasing it.