Ants: Friends or Foes?

By Paul James

I get asked so many questions about ants that some days I just want to scream, “Uncle!” So let me just say right off the top that most ants aren’t bad. In fact, most ants are enormously important little critters. And rather than seeing them as pests in the garden, I suggest you think of them as partners. Here’s why.

Ants are recyclers. Red and black tunneling ants commonly found in lawns and gardens scavenge the soil in search of dead insects and a host of other organic nibbles and turn them into fertilizer. They also aerate the soil and redistribute nutrients along the way.

Ants are predators. Several species of ants feed on fleas, fly larvae, and termites, as well as the larval and adult forms of numerous garden pests.

Ants disperse seeds. A number of wildflowers depend exclusively on ants for dispersal of their seeds, including bleeding hearts, bloodroot, trillium, trout lily, wild ginger, and violets. In fact, these plants are thought to actually time their bloom period for when ants are most active.

Ants protect plants. Ants are attracted to the sweet nectar found on plant stems and the bases of flowers, and while feeding they also patrol the plants and keep insects from attacking them. A familiar example of this is seen on peonies in late spring. Ants crawl all over the sticky flower buds devouring the sweet nectar, and in return they protect the peony from potential pests. (There is disagreement over the popular notion that ants actually help the flowers open.)

Ants are custodians. Leave a few crumbs or other morsels on a picnic table, and overnight they’ll likely be gone thanks in part to ants, who are extraordinarily gifted at finding and hauling away scraps of just about any and every food type.

Ants are food for others. Let’s not forget the way the food chain works – sometimes you’re predator, sometimes you’re prey. And ants are an important food source for other insects, spiders, frogs, lizards, birds, fish, some mammals, and even people (don’t knock them ‘til you’ve tried them).

Of the nearly three dozen ant species in Oklahoma, only two are cause for concern. Carpenter ants (red or black) are one of the largest species common in our area, and over long periods of time they can cause damage to trees and wooden structures, including homes. They don’t actually eat wood, but they do chew it as they tunnel. They probably should be controlled, especially when populations get out of control.

And of course there is the red imported fire ant that lives outdoors and whose sting packs a mighty wallop. They’ve been sighted in Tulsa and a few surrounding counties, and they’ve become prevalent in southern Oklahoma. If you suspect these little monsters have inhabited your yard, you definitely want to take steps to get rid of them.

In the home, I can see how most people might few them as pests. But in all fairness, household ant invasions are largely the result our own doing, meaning they aren’t likely to stick around if food sources aren’t available (juice spills on countertops, grease on stovetops, ripe fruit sitting out, for example.)

If you’re compelled to get rid of ants, there are several effective products on the market, most of which contain some form of boric acid (Borax) or synthetic pyrethroid. Diatomaceous earth is an excellent organic alternative.