Ants perform vital role in garden and in the environment

Published May 14, 2017 at 9:00am

Ants are the most successful groups of insects in the animal kingdom. They are of great interest because they are a social insect and form highly organized colonies or nests. It is estimated that there are one million ants to every human.  

In our area there are 13 species of ant. They communicate with each other by chemical messages they leave on the ground. One sets off for food and leaves a chemical trail for its siblings to follow to the source.

A crushed ant will emit an alarm pheromone which in high concentrations sends other ants nearby into an attack frenzy. Like other insects, ants smell with their antennae.  

Ants move approximately the same amount of soil as earthworms, loosening the soil in the process and increasing air and water movements into the ground.  They clean the ecosystem of dead insect carcasses and help decompose plant and animal matter. By carrying bits of plants and animal remains into their nests, the soil is fertilized and nutrients are recycled though the ecosystem. Ants are among the leading predators of other insects, helping to keep pest population low.

Ants’ life expectancy is 45-60 days. The common Black Ants and the Wood Ants have no sting, but they can squirt a spray of formic acid. Some birds put ants in their feathers because the ants squirt formic acid which gets rid of the parasites. The ants’ mushroom shaped brain appendages have function similar to the gray matter of human brains.

Ants are the world’s greatest gardeners!  Ants and plants have one of the most bizarre and elaborate relationships found in nature. An amazing number of woodland wildflowers have fleshy fat-rich appendages called elaisomes that serve to attract ants, who carry off the seed as they would a dead insect.  

While seeds dispersed by the wind are designed to be airborne with plumes or parachute-like appendages to catch the breeze, and those dispersed by birds or mammals come wrapped in fleshy fruits, seeds dispersed by ants have an outer tissue, called elaisome, that’s as enticing to the critters as an open bag of chocolate chips. Fleshy in consistency, whitish in color, full of proteins, sugars and other goodies, elaisomes are often large and come in different shapes. They may look different but all have the same effect: Ants in the vicinity suddenly act as if they were in seventh heaven, grasping the seed and going right to their nest, where the workers chew the elaisome into pieces and feed it to the larvae. This is their baby food!  After the elaisome is used the ants will discard the rest of the seed unharmed.

As far as plants are concerned the ant is preferable to mammals or birds because the ants are not interested in the seed itself — they simply discard it like they would the exoskeleton of an insect.

It is piled up in a corner of the nest once the elaiosome has been eaten. The seed gets ‘planted’ in the ants’ compost pile. Here it is protected from harm and nurtured by the nutrients from the decaying waste.  

Their tunneling creates tree root-free zones. Seeds are not carried far from the parent plant. Wild ginger, trillium, bloodroot, twinleaf, wood anemone, violets and spring beauty are among our wildflowers that ants plant.

The next time you want to stomp on them, spray them with pesticides or just plain swear at them, maybe now you will apreciate their uniqueness and their role in the wholesomeness of our environment.