Ants are beneficial for gardens. I agree, they are not so beneficial inside the home. But out in the garden they can be good – even if they are stripping the leaves off your Lady Banks’ rose.
Most “Bugs” are Good
The buzz is out about bees, and everyone loves to help them – especially in June – National Pollinator Month. Planting flowers for pollinators? Easy sell! But what about ants scurrying around in the garden? A much harder sell, no matter how beneficial they are.
Yes there are the “one percenters” – the bugs that bug us. That said – 99 percent of “bugs” do us no financial harm, or even help us. Insects are important components of the ecosystem. And ants are a critical component in helping enable plant life in the Southwest.
Ants in the Southwest
The Southwest region is home to over three hundred different species of ants. They can be divided into four major groups; seed-harvester, leaf-cutter, honey-pot, and army, all with a role in helping the garden. These ants dig extensive tunnels which are important to aerate the soil. (Humid areas have worms – here we have ants).
Seed-harvester ants collect seeds of grasses and wildflowers to feed their larvae. Their colonies make a wide cleared space around the nest. With no plants on the surface, the rain quickly runs off and their seed larders stay dry and un-germinated. When a seed-ant larder gets opened (by a hungry javelina perhaps) you may have a patch of wildflowers the following spring.
Leaf-cutter ants don’t make hills, instead all you see is a hole tucked in the ground somewhere. These ants come out in the cooler hours, cut leaves and take them home to grow a special fungus on. The leaves are not their food, the fungus is. Some species of plants grow the fungus better than others. (If you have a Tombstone or Lady Banks’ rose and a colony of leaf-cutter ants moves into the neighborhood, kiss your rose goodbye and plant something else.) The fungus is dependent on the ants for its life and can’t grow outside the colony. The ants must nurture it, give it the right amount of humidity and oxygen, incidentally creating great soil growing conditions for plants.
Honey Pot Ants
Honey-pot ants are something out of science-fiction. The colony works to support some members that do nothing but get stuffed full of nectar and the “juice” of insects such as aphids. These individuals get grossly swollen and can’t move. The stored liquid then is used to feed the whole colony when the dry season comes.
The last group, the army ants, are cannibals. They will invade the nests of stationary ants, eat them all, and then – prey gone – they move on. Army ants are not all bad – they are also known to eat other insects. They are important to help keep balance in the ant world.
Ants Are Also Food
Ants feed a number of desert animals. The “horny toad” (Phrynosoma species), once very common in the desert regions, feeds almost entirely on ants. Desert spiny lizards also like ants.
Beneficial insects known as antlions or ant lions live to eat ants – but only as larvae. Adult ant lions look like giant mayflies and live to mate, lay eggs, and become food for bats.
Mammals eat ants too. Both javelina and coyotes have been reported to dig up nests of ants and eat them. I assume skunks and badgers do so as well. Wonder if those are the honey-pot ants they are going after.
Your Garden is Part of the Ecosystem
Ants and their predators are interesting to have around. With some care you can share your yard with all of them, and perhaps you will get to see an elusive horny toad one day. It takes five to eight ant colonies to provide enough food for this shy lizard.
More About Possible Pests
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