While it’s true that ants can certainly be pests, such as in the case of carpenter ants or the ever notorious fire ants, they’re ecological importance can’t be overstated. They play an important role in the environment and provide a number of benefits that help sustain even us humans.
In this article, we’ll look into the ecological importance of ants as we discuss the different benefits that they provide the environment. We’ll also look into the flip side of things as we touch on some cases wherein ants become pests instead.
Benefits Of Ants
Despite their size, ants outweigh us in biomass with an estimated total population way above the quadrillions. So while a small act done by an individual ant may be negligible, amplify that by quadrillions and it’s bound to make an impact.
Such is why ants are known for their ecological importance and are often used by ecologists as a sign of ecological health. As mentioned, they provide the environment with a number of benefits and they are as follows:
- Ants Aerate And Till Soil. Many ant species dig and tunnel underground to build their nests. In doing so they aerate the soil which allows for better air and water penetration. At the same time, their tunneling efforts also help in tilling the soil and helping bring nutrients and pebbles to the topsoil.
- Ants Improve Soil Health. As they forage, many ants naturally bring organic matter underneath the soil and back to their nests. And when these organic matter decompose, they become natural fertilizers that nourish the soil.
- Ants Help With Pollination. While primarily foragers, ants also frequent plants and flowers for nectar. When they do so, pollen attaches to their bodies which they may then transport to other flowers to ultimately help with germination. In fact, research has shown that some plant species like the Polygonum cascadence and the Conospermum undulatum, are regularly pollinated by ants.
- Ants Help With Seed Dispersal. Biologists have discovered that ants are a major force in seed dispersal. In fact, there are more than 3000 species of flowering plants from different types of habitats known to be dispersed by ants. This is mostly due to a mutualistic relationship between ants and elaiosome producing plants. The latter makes use of elaiosomes or fleshy structures of lipid and protein to lure ants which then carry both seed and elaiosome back to their nests. There, the ants eat the elaiosome and discard the seeds unharmed.
- Ants Prey On Pests. In some cases, ants help plants by preying on different pests and plant predators. For instance, certain ants have been shown to form a mutualistic relationship with African acacia trees as they attack and eat aphids in exchange for shelter and nectar.
- Ants Serve As Food. Ants aren’t the only ones doing the eating. They serve as food for a number of animals such as birds, mammals, and other insects. They’re even consumed by humans and are in fact considered delicacies in certain cultures.
- Ants Help Keep The Environment Clean. As detritivores or decomposers, ants consume and break down organic waste and dead matter. This helps prevent such waste from piling up and becoming a nuisance. For example, even carpenter ants, which are typically known as pests, help clean up the environment as they speed up the decomposition of diseased wood.
- Ants Help Recycle Nutrients. More importantly, as ants break down organic waste, they help recycle nutrients and make them available to primary producers which provide energy and nutrients to us and other animals.
When Ants Are Pests
Despite the multiple benefits, ants can still become pests. Fire ants and carpenter ants for example, are known for invading and causing damage to our homes. But apart from these two notorious ants, non-invasive ant species can also become pests even if they’re just going about their normal activities.
This primarily occurs due to overpopulation, which ironically follows the same principle as their benefits, that being, small acts amplified by numbers. In this case though, too much of a good thing can become bad. For instance, while ant tunneling may help aerate soil, when done too much it may lead to loose soil which causes plants to be easily uprooted.
Overwhelming ant numbers may also negatively affect pollination rate. This is as some aggressive ant species tend to impede floral visitation of true pollinators such as bees. And while ants themselves are pollinators, they simply aren’t as effective nor efficient as the latter.
Are Ants Dangerous?
Yes, ants can be dangerous. As mentioned, some ants can invade our homes and cause damage and even spread disease. For instance, microbiological analysis of ants confirmed the presence of different pathogens and fecal contaminants, which thus makes them vectors of foodborne illnesses.
Apart from that, ant bites or stings, while rarely serious, may sometimes cause allergies and require medical attention. Sometimes they can even be lethal, not just to us, but even our pets.
Are Ants Bad For Plants?
While sometimes beneficial, ants can most definitely be bad for plants. There are a number of ways that ants may harm plants, some of which we’ve discussed like causing the loss of stable soil anchorage, and the fact that they may deter true pollinators from floral visits.
Other than that though, one of the most common ways they negatively affect plants is through their mutual relationship with aphids. In exchange for honeydew, ants essentially farm aphids which may sometimes cause plants to wilt due to excessive sap removal.
With their vast numbers, ants have a profound impact on the environment. They provide a number of benefits that essentially help sustain life on earth. For example, they help keep the earth clean and they recycle nutrients for producers which in turn provide us and other consumers with nutrients and energy.
So while they can most definitely be detrimental to their environment, it’s probably unfair to consider ants to be simply pests. Even with their minute bodies, they help ecosystems thrive and as some scientists may argue, helps allow us humans to exist.