While ants are considered one of nature’s precious workers, we humans have developed a particular love-hate relationship with them. Because just like any animal, they have a good and a bad side.
The same goes when it comes to their relationship with plants. Sometimes they can be highly beneficial, but at times they’re just flat out terrible.
In this article we’ll discuss the two faces of ants and discover how they may be either beneficial or terrible for nature’s essential producers.
How Ants Benefit Plants
While they can sometimes be annoying, ants actually play a significant role in maintaining the balance of our environment and are often used by ecologists as a sign of ecological health. They develop mutualistic relationships with other living things and help plants by lending a hand in the following:
- Soil Aeration: The most common and prolific ant species make their nesting colonies underground. They dig and create hundreds of connecting tunnels in the soil which allow the air to penetrate underneath. This seemingly normal activity effectively aerates the plants’ root systems for better oxygen penetration. Plus, it also lets water in efficiently and thus provides roots with better access to moisture.
- Soil Tillage and Fertilization: In connection to their tunneling efforts, ants also allow tillage of the soil. Through their digging, they naturally help turn all the nutrient bits and pebbles over to the topsoil. Furthermore, the food stocks such as decaying plant parts and other dead insects they bring into their underground homes become natural fertilizers that profoundly nourish the soil.
- Seed Dispersal & Pollination: Ants are considered one of the best in the business when it comes to seed dispersal. They would often scour the forest or garden bed for any food they can get their hands to, such as the seeds of ripe fruits that have fallen. Ants would then travel for miles to bring these seeds to their colonies, allowing an effective process of scattering and distributing a plant’s seeds to other areas. They also act as pollinating agents of flowers, especially those species that have a penchant for sweet nectar as their food. They transfer pollen that sticks to their body as they go from one flower to another.
- Pest Control: If there’s one thing that farmers and gardeners love about ants, it’s that they can be effective biological control agents of plant pests. Ants are not only scavengers, they’re also predators. As such, they feed on various insect pests, primarily targeting their larvae or eggs. Some aggressive species would even target adult insects depending on their size and abilities. More than that though, ants are also capable of repelling the growth of pathogens, such as fungi and bacteria, on plants via certain chemicals that they secrete. Furthermore, they can also repel other insects by displaying their pheromones, warning their potential prey of their presence on plants.
How Ants Can Be Bad For Plants
Barring select species like fire ants and leaf cutters, ants don’t actually pose much of a threat to plants. They rarely eat plants and again, they provide all the aforementioned benefits.
They do, however, become pests of plants when they are suddenly presented with honeydew. Ants just seem to start dancing to a different tune when they get a whiff of sugar in the form of the secretion of aphids, a common pestilence of plants.
When you start seeing signs of aphids on your plants, expect ants to follow. These two insects are the perfect plant-destroying combo when they form the symbiotic relationship that farmers and gardeners hate.
You see, while aphids feed on plants, the ants farm the aphids and feed on their honeydew. In doing so, they increase pest population as they keep away potential aphid predators, even going as far as biting humans to protect their sugary source.
Some ant species also have a penchant for building mound colonies on well-maintained lawns. They don’t just make golfing a bumpy experience; their mounds also have the potential to harm grasses.
Mound build-ups would block out the sun, which in turn will cause patches of grass to wither and die. Furthermore, too much tunneling may lead to plants being easily uprooted due to loss of stable soil anchorage for their roots.
Keeping Ants Off Plants
Since ants can be both a friend and a foe to plants, keeping their population in check is vital for gardens or farmlands. Eliminating them entirely though isn’t precisely the way to go; instead, ecologists suggest that keeping a healthy population is an ideal option. This is due to the fact that the pros presented by ants for plants and the environment are more significant than their cons. And so, here are few methods that you can employ:
- Get rid of aphids. Removing temptation is a must, which means ensuring that aphids and their addictive honeydew should be as far away from ants as possible. Kill off aphids the moment you see them latched to your plants.
- Use natural repellents or deterrents. Planting ant repellants such as peppermints, lavender, and catnip, to name a few, excrete chemicals that naturally deter ants. Kitchen spices such as cayenne and cinnamon can also work. Just sprinkle a bit of these powders around your garden or farm once in a while, and you’ll effectively keep ants away.
- Keeping your ground moist. While ants can be attracted to water, they’re not particularly fond of wet soil. So you can chase them away by wetting your farm bed and keeping it moist now and then.
- Use diatomaceous earth. More commonly known as DE, diatomaceous earth is a chalky powder made from diatom shells. Farmers often use this to manage ant populations as it effectively kills ants while being non toxic to plants and other animals.
Summary: Are Ants Bad For Plants?
There’s a good and bad side to everything, even ants. While they can be highly praised for their ecological importance, they can in some instances harm plants instead of helping them.
When they do, it is up to us to drive them away and control their population, only ever killing when necessary. After all, they do provide plants a handful of benefits when their numbers are kept in check.