The peonies in my backyard always have ants crawling on the flower buds. Many people think ants are a pest on peonies. There’s also a endearing myth that ants “tickle the buds” or “lick the sugar” to help them open. Learn more about ants on peony flowers.
In late spring, we await the arrival of 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 1 Ants searching for nectar on a peony flower.
Figure 2 Peony flower bud at marshmallow stage.
It is a myth that peonies require ants to bloom. The relationship between peonies and ants is a type of mutualism in which two organisms of different species benefit from the activity of one another. Peony flowers provide food for ants and in turn, the ants protect the blossoms from other floral-feeding insects.
So, if you see ants on peony buds, they are common and totally harmless. They are NOT pests. In fact, they are beneficial.
In addition, ants are NOT needed to “open” flower buds.
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 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.
The blossoms would open regardless of the ants’ presence. But I suppose you could say that by protecting their food supply, the ants help my peonies bloom!
What to Do About Ants on Peonies
Obviously, the ants are helpful; they chase off non-beneficial insects from aphids to thrips! We also know that the presence of ants on peony buds is temporary.
Do NOT apply insecticide.
Where I live in New Hampshire, the pink, red, and old-fashioned white peonies are the focal points in my backyard. I treasure them in my garden, but I also fill my house with their beauty and fragrance.
Before I move the blooms indoors I carefully shake off the ants. Just hold the peonies by the stem just below the flower and shake off the ants outdoors.
Read more about peonies on the Almanac’s Peony Plant Care page here.
Now, have you ever had ants in your mailbox?