Ants in the Garden

ants on nectary, ants on cowpea

While in the garden this morning I thought of an axiom: “One can never make too many observations.” I thought of this while inspecting a bean variety I’ve grown for years, yet examining it today I saw details about it which I had never before noticed. This is true for so many facets of gardening. For instance, as I think about it, as long as I’ve gardened I’ve always seen ants in the garden. I tend to take them for granted, not even paying attention to them. Yet, every year I encounter new gardeners who do notice them. They’re alarmed and want to know how to get rid of them. The question is, should we get rid of them?

ant on garden plant, garden ant
They do look kind of scary, but do we need to worry about ants on or around our plants?

Every garden ought to have scary looking creatures.

The Spined Soldier Bug looks scary, but in fact is beneficial.

To some degree “scary” is in the eyes of the beholder. Some things which look scary are completely harmless. Some are even beneficial. Many, though they could conceivably bite or sting, are harmless if left alone. Ants fit into this last category. Most are harmless, but even those which can bite, generally don’t, unless provoked. I always find ants in my okra and on my long beans. All cowpeas (Southern peas) have nectar producing nodes, called nectaries. That’s what you see in this post’s feature photo. These nectaries are meant to attract insects which are beneficial to the plants. They attract various kinds of pollinators and, of course, ants which are their number one customer.

What do ants do in the garden?

First of all, let’s be clear. They’re not just in the garden. They’re everywhere. Your lawn probably has millions of ants living in it. The woods, meadows and prairies are full of ants. It should be no surprise that they’re in the garden.

The Life of Ants in Your Garden

Ants aerate and fertilize the soil.

They actually improve your garden’s soil. They bring things up from below plants’ roots and they carry things down below the surface where they add to a garden’s fertility.

Ants often prey on garden pests.
Sometimes ants “farm” other insects, sometimes they hunt them.

ants on caterpillar
Sometimes ants “farm” other insects, sometimes they hunt them
“Nanny Ants at Work” by bob in swamp is licensed under CC BY 2.0

What pests they prey on depends on the exact kind of ant and location of the garden. Yet clearly ants are an integral part of the ecosystem in most gardens. Remember, even when they are farming another insect, they are filling a niche which would otherwise be filled by “somebody else.” (By the way, if you encounter aphids, accompanied by ants or not, chances you can eliminate them with a jet of water. Repeat a couple times if needed.) Finally…

Ants are part of Nature’s “clean up crew.”

We usually don’t think about it, but ants are important for cleaning up. They eat and/or bury all kinds of dead plant and animal material. This can help prevent disease or “blooms” of other kinds of insects or pests.

Old Farmers Almanac on the Benefits of Ants in the Garden

So what about ants in the garden? How should we see them? We need to remember that, yes, we may occasionally find some ants munching on a fruit or vegetable, in the garden. But remember, they are the clean up crew. Unless you see them actually causing the damage, don’t assume they did. As gardeners it’s important that we cultivate an attitude of cooperation with Nature’s balance rather than that of being at war with everything we don’t understand.

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