Getting Antsy: Ants in the Garden

Benefits of Ants

By George and Becky Lohmiller
April 30, 2010
Ant hill

Ants are among the most successful of insects, outnumbering all other individual animals combined. They have been around since the days of the dinosaurs and inhabit just about every corner of Earth. Their presence in nature is essential to the well-being of the garden and environment. See why … 

The total ant population is estimated at one quadrillion (1,000,000,000,000,000). Wow!  

Ant Colonies

Ants live in colonies made up almost entirely of non-mating female workers whose job is to gather food, build the nest, and look after the egg-laying queen and her young. At certain times, winged males and females are produced by the queen for the purpose of mating with ants from other colonies. After mating, the male ants die, and the mated queens fly off, shed their wings, and start new colonies.

The Benefits of Ants

Although some species, like the carpenter ant and the stinging fire ant, can be pests, generally ants are beneficial.

  • Most ants nest in the ground, digging a labyrinth of tunnels that aerate the soil and allow moisture to get to the roots of plants. They also till the soil by bringing pebbles and particles to the top
  • The leaves and insects brought into the nest decay and fertilize the surrounding plants.
  • Ants act as decomposers, feeding on organic waste, insects, or other dead animals.
  • Even carpenter ants keep the environment clean. By making their nests in dead or diseased wood, they accelerate the decomposition process. After the ants leave, fungi and bacteria grow in the galleries and break down the lignin and cellulose on large surfaces.
  • Many ants are predators and feed on insects that attack lawns and gardens, and in the process of gathering food, they often pollinate flowers and distribute seeds.
  • Ants are also the source of food for many other insects, birds, and mammals so important to the ecosytem.

What Ants Indicate

A sudden convergence of ants in the garden, or a line of ants moving up and down a tree, usually indicates the presence of aphids, mealybugs, or other sap-sucking insects that attack plants. These insects produce a substance called honeydew:

  • The ants stroke the insects with their antennas, causing the insects to excrete the sweet liquid.
  • The ants swallow it and store it in a special holding stomach called the crop.
  • The honeydew is brought back to the nest and shared with the queen and other workers.
  • Some ants even keep aphids in their nest as a farmer would keep a cow, giving them food and shelter in exchange for honeydew.

Did you know?

In some cultures, ants are considered delicacies. The honey-pot ants that live in our southwestern deserts gather large amounts of nectar and store it in the swollen bodies of specialized worker ants called repletes. Native Americans have snacked on these sweet ants for centuries, making them possibly the first ones ever brought to a picnic on purpose.


Reader Comments

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Ant Infestation

I have tried Everything to get rid of the ants in my garden. They live in the roots of my plants. I live on a sand prairie in Wabasha MN. It doesn't matter how much mulch I add to my garden they always bring the sand back up to the surface. I'm giving up on this war with the ants....

One way to remove ants

I learned a very easy, natural way to remove unwanted ants that has worked well for me. You must be able to access the anthill though. First, boil a pot of water. Meanwhile, get an empty flower pot large enough to cover the opening on the top of the anthill. Plug up any drain holes. Then take the pot and the boiling water out to the anthill. Pour the water over the anthill and then place the inverted pot on top of the hole. Go back and boil one more pot of water, then take it out to the anthill again. Turn the pot right side up. The surviving ants will have gathered in there, unable to escape. Pour the boiling water into the pot and problem solved. It has worked for me.


Don't want to disturb the Colony. How do I m maintain their colony without destroying my plants.

Ants can be helpful inside the house too.

I had a house with cracks that led to the exterior, so I had ants. But they were very unobtrusive and would only show up, in neat and orderly single file, to clean up crumbs from my coffee table, kitchen counter, etc, carry them off and disappear. I also killed a roach on my floor once and didn't have the stomach to look at it, let alone clean it up; by morning it was gone. The ants had carried it away. My ants were my happy helpers, basically like a Roomba. I forbade my visitors from killing my ants.


Easiest solution ever used in my garden is cornmeal- yep, plain old cheap cornmeal.
Sprinkle where ever you see the little pests, and they will disappear in a day or two.
No harm to plants, animals, or humans- seems to work without fail.

Diatomaceous earth question:

Hi, On April 20 I asked a sincere question about DE and can find no one's answer. Would someone please answer me? If DE has to be dry to work (as in the garden) how can it be an effective wormer for humans, animals, etc., where it will be in a wet environment of the gut?
And now, I also have a new problem. I don't want to put out poison because I have lots of little lizards around, and I don't want them to eat an ant with poison in its system. So, how do I deal with ants stealing all my grass seed? I have seeded a small plot three different times, properly fertilized per grass seed package directions, kept it watered, and watched this thoroughfare of ants crossing my yard and hauling off the seeds I planted! Help!
Thanks, G.G.

DE as Dewormer

The Editors's picture

DE has traditionally been hailed as a deworming agent, however, there are no scientific studies to back up its effectiveness, unfortunately. The theory is that the tiny abrasive DE (silica) particles harm parasites in the intestines, but this is questionable. You can read more about this topic here.

As for the ants, the best way to deal with them would be to follow their breadline back to their nest and deal with the colony. You can flood them out with a mix of water and dish soap, or vinegar. Or, you could pour DE in and around the nest. This should encourage them to move elsewhere.

Red Ants & Aphid eggs on W.melon vines in Butte County Ca

Please Help ! The ants come out when I water & some leaves have aphid eggs !
I have the 2 W.melons planted tiered in a bottomless 2 gal. pot that's atop a bottomless 5 gal pot that is half buried in the ground. (The hole under the 5 gal pot is @1x2 ft. deep.)
I only water the top pot slowly till it runs over and the recess on the 5 gal. is full.
I have made a hole down to ensure & check the water.
(The surrounding ground is extreme hardpan. It had horrendous weeds.)
I cleared an area 8x10 ft. & covered it with black plastic.
I then put my 8x10 ft. box down to contain the vines from the rest of the yard.
So, that the vines didn't get too hot; I put down a layer of dry lawn clippings.
If I spray vines I'm afraid of mildew ! What Do I Do ???

Aphid Spray with Neem Oil

The Editors's picture

Try spraying plants with a mixture of water and neem oil, which is not only non-toxic to humans and most wildlife, but also effective against aphids and a fungicide. You can find neem oil at most garden centers and hardware stores, or online. Before use, you will want to create a diluted solution by combining 2 tablespoons of neem oil and 1 gallon of water. Follow instructions on the product’s label for the best results.

Simple Safe Organic Ant Removal

Some ants do "cultivate" other insects for food. My response to these species is to keep them away from places their food will hurt my plants. They do however have many valuable habits as pointed out in the article especially if you have soil that tends towards being "hardpan" without help from insects like ants. On my farm we treat insects or not based on where they are and what they are doing. Having said that there are times they get into unwanted places like our house, the wrong parts of the garden and so on. For those times they get treated as the pest they have made of themselves. I have several natural methods I use depending on the species of pest.
Diatomaceous Earth or DE for short is the best ant killer I have ever used. Be sure to get the FOOD GRADE!!! It can be eaten by humans or pets with no ill effects - it acts as a dewormer for the digestive tract. It is considered a "grit" for various earth and compost worms as well as chickens and other animals with gizzards so is beneficial to them. It does have the nasty side effect of killing bees however so I recommend using it at the base of plants and not on the flowers.
There is just one catch - it only works when dry. The good news is that if it gets wet that doesn't hurt it (it won't dissolve or degrade) other than making it ineffective until it dries out again so reapplying is often not needed. On a dry day on dry ground sprinkle it in a circle around the ant hill and give it a few days.
This works by cutting the ants and causing them to "bleed" until they die from lack of fluids. They also track it back to their nest and spread it when other ants "clean" them. I have found with this method that keeping a ring of it on the ground around the plants most likely to be infested with pests has led to almost no insect or slug issues on a rather large farm.
In cases where I can't find the nest or can't get to it I have to get mean and mix sugar with boric acid powder and water, soak it up with cotton balls and place in a small mason jar. I seal the top with duct tape, punch a few small holes for the ants and then place some sugar and a tiny bit of water - NO BORIC ACID - on the outside to attract them. Again takes about 2 days to work and has worked for me every time.

Thanks, Susan.

Fire ants are a constant problem for us here in South Texas. I have been using Borax and Sugar mixture for a couple of years, but I like the way you describe using that solution much better than just sprinkling it on the mound. I will use the DE for solving my issue with them in my garden; I have been looking for an organic solution for a while. I've tried DE before but I probably wasn't as consistent as necessary.

Diatomaceous earth question:

If according to your statement "Diatomaceous earth only works when dry" then how can it work as a wormer when it is in a wet (digestive tract) environment? Please answer, I need to know if it will be effective for several different kimds of animals (chickens, goats, cats, etc. will it hurt or help mealworms? (grown for chicken and human consumption).

Getting rid of ants

Have you tried gluten corn meal. It's suggest that this be sprinkled where the ants are. They will gather it and take it back to the colony. They eat it, but cannot digest it. Takes about a week to work.

Ants not beneficial

In Australia ants are a problem, period. Not only do they protect aphids from Ladybirds but they also protect the dreaded mealybug. Lost a few trees to mealybugs already. They also keep mealybug larvae in storage somewhere. Completely drown a tree in poison and a few days later the ants are back planting the larvae all over the place. Impossible to get rid of mealybugs other than by natural means (destroyer ladybirds) however they won't go near the trees protected by ants which is pretty much all of them. I have no time for ants. Don't see them as beneficial at all. Any of them.

ants in garden

I have a lot of ants in my raised vegetable garden. When is too many ants and becomes a problem?

ants in the garden

The Editors's picture

If you have an abundance of ants, it actually means you have a lot of aphids. Ants do eat your plants, but aphids do.  Ants ‘farm’ aphids. The ants feed of the goo the aphids make. If you get rid of the aphids you may lower your ant population if it bothers you. Otherwise, ants just loosen the soil and they are fine if they are not hurting your plants.


Your logic is flawed. You have a lot of aphids because of the ants not vice versa. Ants that farm aphids are only interested in aphids. Other than that they are not a nuisance at all. So how do you get rid of the aphids which would naturally be taken care of by ladybirds (ladybugs) if not for the ants protecting them? Huh? It's a myth that ants are useful. House flies are more useful than ants.

ants but no aphids

I have a raised garden and have newly planted/sprouted vegetables and herbs. I noticed a lot of ants in my garden before it even started to sprout and I had no aphids or other pests at the time. Everything I read says that the reason I have ants in my garden is due to aphids and other insects that secrete the honeydew substance but I don't have any pests in my garden. Even if I do its very very few. So why do I have so many ants?

Will baking soda or cinnamon

Will baking soda or cinnamon work to get rid of ants around growing vegetables?

Cinnamon is commonly listed

The Editors's picture

First of all, ants are generally good for the garden. But also to answer your questions: Cinnamon is commonly listed as a home remedy to repel (not kill) ants, with mixed results. Some do use it in the garden as a barrier, but you would need to replenish every time the soil got wet. Apparently, cinnamon, when sprinkled across ant trails, is thought to confuse them so that they can not sense their own trails. FYI, Cinnamon does not appear to work for fire ants; in fact, it attracts them, according to one study (see link below):
A home remedy to kill ants that is commonly mentioned on the internet is to mix 1 part baking soda and 1 part powdered sugar, and set it in a jar lid where ants are. They will take it to the nest (being attracted to the sugar), and die when they ingest the baking soda. It may take several days to see an effect. However, some scientists say that there is no study that proves that this works either. The best way to know is to try it out in your garden. Frankly, unless you see the ants eating your plants, we'd leave them alone.

I have heard conflicting

I have heard conflicting comments about the efficacy of grits to kill ants. Many,including "The Bug Guys" on Public Radio, have said that ants do not consume solids and that this remedy is a myth.

I tried grits on an infestation of ants in my garden shed and it didn't phase them.

You are correct that grits do

The Editors's picture

You are correct that grits do not work for getting rid of ants.

Help! I have mean old ants

Help! I have mean old ants eating up my garden! I know most ants are beneficial and blah blah.. Well, These are burrowing in all the root systems of my plants and I find 5 or 6 at a time in the flowers of my tomatoes or peppers. I pulled a tomato off today that was riddled with holes and ants came out of the holes! What is with these ants?! I've tried: "Come & get it", a salt looking spinocide.. I've tried mint tea, neem oil, jalepeno water, orange oil and an organic insect pest spray. All it did was irritate them. :( I need to rid of them in and around the root systems of vegetable plants.

I have been told equal or

I have been told equal or nutasweet sprinkled around the hills will get rid of them.

Artificial sweeteners would

Artificial sweeteners would have me running for the hills too. Blech.

How to control carpenter

How to control carpenter ants? They are very dangerous and refusing to leave my property!!!!!!! :(

To control carpenter ants,

The Editors's picture

To control carpenter ants, make sure you've sealed off entry points to your home and trim back any nearby trees, shrubs, and plants. Do not put any mulch or wood near your home which could be used for nesting. Repair any clogged pipes or gutters. Seal all food containers. Observe ants to find nests--esp after sunset. Try putting out nontoxic baits such as sugar milk (equal parts of sugar and milk) to find nests. Then you can apply an insecticide directly into the nest. Sprays with pyrethroids and dusts containing disodium octaborate tetrahydrate or desiccants are effective control products. Diatomaceous earth is a desiccant that you can find in stores. For more extreme measures, you'll need to consult a professional who has license for serious sprays.

Have you tried black pepper?

Have you tried black pepper?