Imagine! One quadrillion tiny (and some not so tiny!) insects-foraging. . . rampaging. . . looking for virtually anything that might be eaten or, in some cases, conquered. Striding purposely along in endless lines, ants wend their way across our yards, up the walls, through almost invisible cracks and crevices. . . pouring out of what seems an impossible nowhere. . .into our kitchens and pantries.
First come just a few. Scouts who return to the nest with good news of dirty dishes, crumbs behind the stove, garbage cans filled to overflowing and cat munchies spilled down a floor register. A force rivaling the invading hordes of Genghis Kahn immediately mobilizes and marches-bent on stocking their collective larder against the promise of another long winter.
Ants! It seems that all quadrillion of them on Earth at any one time routinely turn up in our gardens and kitchens. . . overnight. . . without warning. And are they tough! In some cases, they can even be beneficial. Always a fascinating social structure. Second only to cockroaches in tenacity, and rivaling the wily coyote in cunning, ants have adapted quite nicely to the human lifestyle and are the most social insect on our planet.
Yet, while they may be a nuisance in the home, even these pestiferous rascals can often be beneficial in the garden. Most species-and there are probably 14,000 in all-are omnivorous. . . they eat virtually anything organic. That includes practically any other insect (except aphids-more about their relationship with aphids later) including cutworms, grubs, fleas, bedbugs, and flies. They'll even attack and drag away moths, mosquitoes and black flies. Additionally, they recycle decaying animal and vegetable material, and certain types aerate the soil with their deep networks of tunnels.
Stories abound relating the horrors of people being attacked and all but devoured by swarms of marauding ants. True, a few species can inflict a nasty and painful sting (injecting a type of formaldehyde). Quite a few others will respond to threat upon their lives or security by clamping down on the nearest patch of flesh with powerful, needle-sharp jaws. But, while a serious threat outdoors, that type rarely finds its way into the home and, if left alone in the garden, would quickly flee from an occasional encounter with a 160+ pound gardener wielding a hoe or trowel.
Ants do, however, have a more “devilish" side. They will protect and nurture certain types of aphids. An aphid is actually little more than a very small processing unit that converts plant juices (sap) into a sweet nectar-like solution that it stores in its bulging little body. Ants have learned that by stroking an aphid's abdomen, they are rewarded with a droplet of “honey-dew" from tiny tube-like projections on its posterior.
Remarkably, with the arrival of the frosts of fall, ants will actually carry some of their aphid-partners into their subterranean homes where they are kept alive over winter, later to be returned to the upper parts of plants the following spring.
A number of larger insects, birds, small snakes and mammals prey upon ants so they only rarely become a serious problem in the outdoors. Occasionally, however, a nest turns up in the wrong place and must be dealt with. Resist the natural urge to become hysterical. Ants can very easily be encouraged to move to a different spot. Remember that they're where they are because conditions are favorable and food plentiful. If you make their living conditions unpleasant, more often than not they'll pack up their eggs and pupae and march off to find a new home.
Water-lots of it-is the answer. Just follow the trail of workers to the nest opening and then pour in plenty of water to which a little dishwashing liquid has been added. Should that fail, a brew of blenderized tansy (a perennial herb with a pungent odor) in water should do the trick. They can't stand the smell of the stuff! Be watchful though. They may move in the wrong direction and end up in Junior's sand box, or worse: the basement. I prefer to avoid the use of toxic chemistry in the control or management of ants.
Finally, ants can become most interesting pets, living upwards of six years for workers and as long as 12 years for the queen. Many a youngster has spent long and profitable hours observing the social behavior of these fascinating little creatures. Perhaps the simplest and least expensive formicarium is a jar of soil placed in a shallow tray of water or covered with fine gauze. Start with a queen (they're the larger ones with wings) and she'll produce her own ladies-in-waiting and workers. Feed with small scraps of meat, fruit or sugar and supply moisture by wetting a small sponge with water. Just be careful not to overdo the food and water. . . the little fellows can only eat and drink so much.
It all sounds suspiciously Hitchcockian doesn't it!
Fred Davis is a Master Gardener, Master Composter, lecturer, and long-time nurseryman. He and his wife, Linda, own and operate a popular perennial nursery in Palermo, Maine, and maintain a no-frills gardening information website where you will find answers to your gardening questions, at: http://www.HillGardens.com/