Want to banish ants from your landscape? Think again! Although ants deservedly get a bad rap for invading our homes, when they stay outdoors, they are more often beneficial to our gardens. If you have wooded areas on your property, you may be delighted by the appearance of Trilliums or other beautiful flowers brought there by ants.
Because they’re so small, you may not have noticed that there are many varieties of ants. In our North Carolina mountains, almost 100 different ant species are afoot. Identifying the ants you see in your yard is the first step in deciding how to react. Most of our WNC ants are from the two most common ant subfamilies: Formicinae and Myrmicinae. An important hint about the role many ants play in our gardens is that Myrmicinae are ants that eat starches, which often come from appendages to the plant seeds that they harvest and store. Myrmecochory refers to seed dispersal by ants. Although ants taking your plant seeds may sound like a bad idea, researchers have found that as many as 50% of the non-woody plants in our eastern deciduous forests may depend on ants for spreading their seeds. Many of our favorite wildflowers depend on such seed dispersal, and it isn’t just spreading the seeds around that the ants contribute. By taking them back to their nests, ants protect the seeds from being eaten by predators or destroyed by fire. Finally, ant nests have richer soil than surrounding areas, providing better conditions for the seeds to sprout and prosper.
Of course, not all ants are our friends; for information about common ants to discourage or avoid, see this page for ant identification and treatment: http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/ent/notes/Urban/ants.htm
Ant identification can be an interesting summer family project, but be extremely careful that children not handle ants or investigate ant nests without supervision as some species bite. Here in the mountains we do not typically encounter fire ants, which are particularly dangerous, but they have invaded many other areas of North Carolina.
Article written by Debbie Green, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer.