Why are there ants on my peonies? Will ants harm my peonies? Every year, peony season brings these questions. Plus, we hear that enduring (but delightful) myth that ants need to “tickle the buds” to help peonies open. Peonies and ants do have a relationship but it’s not quite what you may think.
In late spring, we rejoice in the breathtakingly beautiful peony blossoms. However, those of us with peonies in our garden may also notice ants, especially at the peony’s base.
Figure 1Ants searching for nectar on a peony flower.
Figure 2Peony flower bud at marshmallow stage.The bud should feel like a marshmallow if you give it a very gentle squeeze.
Are Ants Harmful to Peonies?
Let’s get this first question out of the way. No. Absolutely not. Do not brush off those ants! Or, worse, break out insecticide!
Not only are the ants NOT pests, they are actually beneficial. Ants and peonies have a type of partnership.
Do Peonies Need Ants to Bloom?
The enduring myth is that peonies require ants to open. They do not. If you don’t have ants, rest assured that the peony buds still open.
It’s a myth that ants are needed to “tickle the buds” or “lick the sugar.” However, there IS indeed some truth to this folklore, as is true of most lore.
The relationship between peonies and ants is a type of mutualism in which both animal and plant benefit from each other’s activities.
Peonies are providing some food (nectar) for the ants; in turn, they are protect the blossoms from other floral-feeding insects. Ants chase off non-beneficial insects such as thrips!
(We also like this folklore because it keeps both peonies and ants alive and well to allow nature to take its course!)
Why Ants Are Attracted to Peonies
Ants are simply attracted to the sugary droplets (nectar) which is present at the base of the green sepals that surround a peony bud. This is a great food source for ants, containing not only sugars but also amino acids, lipids, and other organic compounds.
The ants are NOT eating the peonies. When a scout ant finds the nectar on the peony, she emits a pheromone or odor trail on the way back to her nest. At the nest, the scout alerts other ants of the food source. The recruited ants then follow the odor trail back to nectar on the peony flowers.
In turn, the ants actually provide the plant with some protection! While the ants are feeding on the nectar, they protect their food source by attacking other bud-eating pests by stinging, biting, or spraying them with acid and tossing them off the plant.
Also, the ants are temporary. Once the peony blossoms, the ants move on to seek other food sources.
If you do NOT have ants (perhaps you live on a rooftop), the peony blossoms would open regardless of the ants’ presence.
How to Get Rid of Ants on Peonies Before Bring Indoors
We treasure our pink, red, and old-fashioned white peonies in the garden, but also like to fill the house with their beauty and fragrance.
Before bringing peony flowers indoors, carefully shake off the ants. Just hold the peonies by the stem just below the flower (so their head doesn’t snap off) and shake off the ants outdoors.
A different method by professional growers is to cut the peony flowers before buds fully open. However, you need to cut the peony at the “marshmallow” stage (see picture above) in order for the buds to open indoors.
So now you know the story about ants and peonies! We welcome your comments below.
Read more about caring for peonies on the Almanac’s Peony Growing Guide here.
Now, have you ever had ants in your mailbox?