Often labeled as a "bad boy" in the world of insects due to an insatiable appetite for all things wood (including your home), termites can play an important role in helping produce fertile compost for your garden. Understanding the potential benefits and risks of having termites in your compost gives you needed information to help make important compost management decisions.
Termites are insects that can contribute to compost decomposition by physically breaking down wood materials in your compost pile or bin. Together with other physical decomposers, such as earthworms, sow bugs, ants and centipedes, termites break large pieces of organic matter in your compost into smaller pieces that the millions of decomposing microorganisms can consume. The finished humus material produced as a result of this intricate decomposition process is a nutrient-rich soil amendment you can use to enrich your garden soil.
Your chances of having termites in your compost vary depending upon the amount of woody materials used. For instance, if you construct a compost pile using just dead leaves and fresh grass clippings, you shouldn't see any termites as you turn and aerate the pile. However, if your compost pile consists of a lot of waste wood, old boards and wood chips, you may quickly find your compost pile become home to a group of termites eager to consume the wood products.
Termites typically don't show up in your compost until the decomposition process is well underway, usually about two or three weeks after you put wood-based materials in your compost heap. Barbara Pleasant, co-author of "The Complete Compost Gardening Guide," says that you should avoid using wood chips that have been exposed on the ground in another location for three weeks or longer. Termites may have already discovered them and you run the risk of introducing them to your compost pile -- and possibly even your home -- by bringing them home.
If you discover termites in your compost, don't panic. According to Phillip W. Hadlington, co-author of "Termites and Borers: A Homeowner's Guide to Detection and Control," certain species of termites that inhabit compost piles -- such as dampwood termites -- don't attack the dry, seasoned wood commonly used for building houses. Contact your county Cooperative Extension office to see about having an agent come out to help identify the termite species in your compost.
If termites are a potential problem in your community, avoid using wood-based materials in your compost pile. Consider constructing your compost bin from non-wood materials, such as chicken wire supported by a framework of steel T-posts. If you have a regular supply of wood materials -- such as wood chips -- that you need to compost, locate your compost away from your buildings to minimize the chances of attracting termites to your home but do so at your own risk; Phillip Hadlington states that a nest of termites can travel up to 50m in search of woody materials to eat. Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension suggests that you consider chemically treating the soil around the perimeter of your house to minimize your chances of developing an infestation.