No, ants do not eat plants. Despite being opportunistic eaters that feed on a variety of food sources, ants don’t eat and consume grown plants. They do however, feed on plant material such as fruit, nectar, sap, and seeds.
In this article we’ll learn more about ants and plants as we learn more about whether ants are bad for plants or not. We’ll further discuss what plant material ants actually eat and break down how they can harm them. We’ll also look into how to control ant populations to make sure that they don’t end up damaging your plants.
What Plant Material Do Ants Eat?
As mentioned, ants don’t eat the plants themselves, but do feed on some plant material. Ants, for instance, love to eat sweets and therefore frequent plants and flowers for sap and nectar. In fact, ants even build mutualistic relationships with plants for these foods. For example, acacia ants protect acacia trees from herbivores in exchange for nectar and shelter.
Apart from sap and nectar, ants also feed on any fruits and seeds that they find through foraging.
Do Ants Eat Flowers?
No, ants don’t eat flowers. Ants only really visit flowers because of the nectar that they produce. To ants flowers are simply a means to nectar, a sweet food source that provides them sugar, amino acids, lipids, and organic compounds that help them survive.
That said, while ants don’t eat flowers, they may end up damaging them. Some ants like the Formica neorufibarbis gelida have been shown to chew on certain parts of flowers to obtain nectar and other food. Sometimes these ants may damage or dislodge the pistil and negatively affect seed production.
Do Ants Eat Leaves?
As with flowers, ants also don’t eat leaves. In the same way however, that doesn’t mean they don’t harm or damage them.
While they may not consume leaves, some ants called leafcutter ants are known to cut them down and destroy them. In fact, these ants are considered pests in agricultural fields or gardens as they cut down leaves and defoliate trees to death.
Are Ants Bad For Plants?
There’s no clear cut answer as to whether ants are bad for plants or not. While we’ve shown that ants can indeed damage plants as they chew on leaves or flowers, they still remain to be ecologically important and provide plants with a number of benefits.
One example of how ants can go both ways can be shown through leafcutter ants. While these ants are considered to be agricultural pests, they actually aren’t pests in natural habitats. In fact, these notorious ants that cut down and defoliate trees, are actually deemed beneficial and a keystone species as they contribute largely to environmental diversity, productivity, and nutrient and energy flow.
So really, the answer is it depends. Factors such as species, population, and context can make ants good for plants one day and bad in another.
How Can Ants Harm Plants?
Regardless of benefits, ants can harm plants in a number of ways. These ways are as follows:
- Physical Damage. As already mentioned, ants can directly or physically damage plants as they chew on its parts. Certain ants such as the leafcutter ants and Formica neorufibarbis gelida have been shown to chew on leaves and flowers and damage plants to the point of defoliation or affecting seed growth.
- Sap Farming. Ants may also indirectly harm plants through the relationships that they build with other insects. For example, ants are known to tend and farm aphids. In exchange for honeydew, ants protect these aphids from predators, essentially allowing them to grow in numbers. The issue however is that these aphids are herbivorous and feed exclusively on plant sap. They take nutrients away from plants and may cause molting leaves, stunted growth, and even plant death.
- Insect Deterrent. Ants can negatively affect seed dispersal as they deter more efficient pollen vectors. While ants can be all goody goody some insects like aphids and mealybugs, they can be extremely aggressive to their competitors. They, for example, attack bees that try to get a share of nectar to the point that some bees have learned to avoid flowers that smell of ants.
- Tunneling. Lastly, ants may weaken or damage root systems as they tunnel through soil. They may also uproot plants as they dig to build their underground nests.
How To Stop Ants from Damaging Your Plants
Ant infestations may ultimately end up harming your plants, so it would be in your best interest to control them. Here are a few methods you can apply to so do:
- Get Rid of Aphids and Mealybugs. As mentioned, ants may indirectly damage plants through the relationships they develop with pests like aphids and mealybugs. Therefore, removing temptation is a must and you should try to get rid of these pests the moment you see them latched to your plants.
- Use Repellents or Deterrents. Planting ant repellants such as peppermints, lavender, and catnip, may help deter ants. Kitchen spices such as cayenne and cinnamon and acids like lemon juice can also work. Just sprinkle or apply a bit of these around your plants and you’ll keep ants away.
- Use Diatomaceous Earth. Diatomaceous earth or DE is a chalky powder made from diatom shells. Farmers often use this to manage ant populations as it effectively gets rid of ants while being non-toxic to plants and other animals. Just be sure to use food-grade DE if ever you do choose to use this method.
- Ant Baits. Aside from DE you may also use insecticides such as baits. These baits are a mixture of toxic matter and food that are attractive to ants. They lure ants to take the bait back to their nests where they can potentially pass it to the queen.
In using any of these methods, do remember that ants can also provide benefits for plants. Therefore, ecologists suggest that keeping a healthy population of ants is ideal as compared to fully getting rid of them.This is due to the fact that the pros presented by ants for plants and the environment are more significant than their cons.
Summary: Do Ants Eat Plants?
To summarize, no ants don’t eat plants themselves, but they do eat plant matter such as nectar, fruits and sap. Also even though they don’t consume plants, that doesn’t mean that they can’t harm them. Some ants chew on parts of plants while some may also damage plants through their activities such as tunneling and tending for honeydew producing pests.
With that, ants may sometimes become pests themselves and negatively affect plants. Therefore, it’s important to keep their population in check where they can provide plants a number of benefits and not compromise plant health.