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!
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.