No, ants don’t eat flowers. The reason ants often visit flowers is not because they eat them but because of the nectar that flowers produce. To ants flowers are simply a means to a sweet and attractive food source that provides sugar, amino acids, lipids, and organic compounds, all of which help them survive.
That said, there’s more to the ant-flower relationship than whether ants eat them or not. In general, horticulturists don’t categorize ants as pests as they can provide benefits to flowers. However, there are also cases wherein ants damage flowers due to how they obtain nectar and their relationship with other insects.
In this article we’ll look more into the ant-flower relationship as we discuss how they can be beneficial or damaging to flowers.
How Are Ants Beneficial to Flowers?
Ants benefit flowers in the same way that they benefit plants overall. After all, flowers are simply parts of a plant. These benefits are as follows:
Soil Aeration: Ants aerate the soil as they create underground tunnels. This leads to the growth of new roots and allows these roots to grow deeper. As such, nutrient absorption is also improved. Plus, soil aeration improves drainage and thus provides roots with better access to moisture, and reduces the risk of fungal diseases.
Plant Nutrition: As ants tunnel, they also allow tillage of the soil. Through digging they help turn nutrient bits and pebbles over to the topsoil. Furthermore, the food stocks such as decaying plant parts and other dead insects that ants bring into their underground homes become natural fertilizers that nourish the soil.
Pollination: While ants aren’t considered to be the best pollinators, they too do their part as pollen vectors. In fact, ant-pollination often occurs with low-growing, self-compatible plants that do not require long-distance pollen dispersal such as the annual plant Polygonum cascadence.
Pest Control: Ants can be quite protective of their food sources and as such, they won’t hesitate to attack other insects that seek to harm their nectar-producing flowers. In fact, farmers and gardeners alike acknowledge this tendency and make great use of ants as biological agents of plant pests.
How Are Ants Harmful to Flowers?
Despite the benefits that ants provide, they can also harm and weaken flowers. They do so through the following:
Just because ants don’t eat flowers, doesn’t mean that they don’t damage them. Several studies have shown that ants can damage flowers as they try to obtain nectar and other food.
For example, ants of the species Formica neorufibarbis gelida have been shown to chew on the coronal ring of Eritrichium aretioides flowers.
The same ants are also known to damage P. viscosum flowers as they chew on the base of the pistil to collect nectar. With that, they dislodge the pistil and negatively affect seed production.
Leaf-cutter ants are also known to cut down flowers to add them to their subterranean gardens. There they use these flowers along with leaves to cultivate fungus that they feed on.
Apart from the physical damage that ants may sometimes inflict to flowers, they can also damage flowers indirectly due to their relationship with other insects.
For example, ants have been shown to protect and farm aphids, soft-bodied insects that feed on plant sap and negatively affect plant growth. These aphids lead to malformed flowers and can sometimes cause them to wither as they suck out its nutrients.
Ants can also deter other insects visiting flowers and negatively affect pollen dispersal. For instance, ants are known to attack and harass honeybees and therefore cause decreased floral visitation from a much more efficient vector. In fact, research has shown that ants harass bumblebees so much that the latter has learned to avoid flowers with ant scent.
Benefits vs Disadvantages: The Irony
It’s interesting and somehow ironic how some of the benefits and disadvantages of ants with regards to flowers refer to the same thing. For example, while ants may protect flowers from plant-feeding insects, they also have a tendency to farm them and essentially foster their growth. Also, while ants can help with pollination, they also prevent more efficient and effective pollen vectors from visiting flowers.
It’s almost as if ants are a double-edged sword and it can be unclear whether they’re truly favorable for flowers or not. One can’t simply overlook the benefits that ants provide but in truth, they too can become pests when they’re in large numbers.
Therefore, when growing flowers or maintaining a garden, it’s important to keep ant populations in check.
How To Keep Ants Off Flowers
As mentioned, it’s important to control the ant population in your flower garden. That said, you don’t necessarily want to get rid of them fully either given the benefits that they do provide. So what exactly can you do?
Well, here are a few tips on how to maintain an healthy population of ants in your flower garden:
- Get rid of aphids: Where aphids go, ants will follow. Therefore, you have to remove temptation and ensure that you get rid of aphids and their addictive honeydew. One simple way to do so is to spray them away with water.
- Use Natural Repellents or Deterrents: You may use plants such as peppermints, lavender, and catnip, which 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 once in a while, and you’ll effectively keep ants away.
- Keep Your Ground Wet: 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 every now and then.
- Use Diatomaceous Earth: As a last resort, you may use food-grade Diatomaceous Earth or DE, a chalky powder made from diatom shells that effectively kills insects like ants while being non-toxic to plants and other animals. Sprinkle DE around the plant that you want to protect, but don’t apply it near the flowers as it may inadvertently kill pollinators. Again though, the goal is to control not to eliminate, so be mindful of how you use this.
Do Ants Eat Grass?
No ants don’t eat grass. They may however, damage grass as they build mounds or anthills. In doing so they can uproot grass, cause damage to its roots, and block sunlight to eventually cause grass to wilt.
Do Ants Eat Leaves?
No ants do not eat leaves. As with flowers however, certain ants like leaf-cutter ants like to cut them down as they try to cultivate fungus. In fact these ants can be serious pests as they can fully strip trees of leaves.
Do Ants Eat Aphids?
While ants would generally prefer to develop a mutualistic relationship with aphids for their honeydew, they sometimes eat them when food is scarce. This especially occurs with aggressive ants such as fire ants.
Summary: Do Ants Eat Flowers?
To summarize, no ants do not eat flowers. Instead they frequent flowers for nectar, a sweet food source that offers a good deal of nutrients. That said, while ants don’t feed on flowers, it doesn’t mean that they don’t damage them.
Ants may chew on different parts of flowers as they try to obtain nectar. Sometimes they can even dislodge the pistil and negatively affect seed production. Ants also develop relationships with other insects that prove disadvantageous to flowers such as their relationship with aphids and honeybees.
Despite these disadvantages, ants do also provide flowers and plants some benefits including pest control, pollination, soil management. So, while ants can be unsightly on flowers, they can ultimately help them bloom beautifully.