“I don’t want ants!” stated my wife after my mother noticed a small cluster along the edge of the newly laid patio. We took the opportunity over the winter to “re-engineer” the backyard as it was in serious need of some TLC. Now all the main construction work had been completed it was looking pretty bare as we hadn’t yet got any flowers in. This didn’t seem to deter a colony of ants from locating a new home in one of the borders.
Ants don’t really mind a trek to go in search of food. Despite the lack of planting in the immediate vicinity, they had established a central location from which to send out expeditions and at equal distances to the surrounding neighbour’s gardens. In fact they had already formed a line across the patio into a further border and from there, who knows where!
I began to pose the question of “Why?” the ants were not wanted, but my mother, who was visiting at the time, had already begun systematically stomping on any dots that moved beneath her feet. The average colony size of these Black Garden ants is between 4 and 7 thousand individuals so she would have a lot more stomping to do before she made much of an impact. Besides, within ant society nothing goes to waste, and the crushed corpses of the fallen would swiftly be carried back to the nest to provide further fuel for the next generation.
I often wonder why people don’t like ants. Sure they can be a bit of an annoyance when you find them in the kitchen cupboards (but they are only clearing up the food waste or spillages that you should have sorted out much earlier), but in the garden they can be much more useful. Their tunneling can keep the soil aerated and help to distribute nutrients for your plants. They are also very adept at keeping many garden pests to a minimum.
Aside from the benefits to the gardener, ants are also great to study. The structure of their society is well documented, and it’s interesting to identify the various individuals, from workers and soldiers to the rarely seen flying males and queens. Ants are one of only two species, along with humans, that domesticate other animals. They can often be seen shepherding groups of aphids and “milking” them for honeydew which the aphids can extract from the local flora. Some species of aphid are so reliant on their relationship with ants that they cannot survive without them. The ants, in their turn, provide protection from predators (fending of ladybirds and such) and will bring their herds into the main nest overnight to ensure they are safe.
Ants do not have great vision, and will rely more on chemical messages and their sensitive antenna to navigate the world. You can watch them greet one another and spend some time examining their new acquaintance with their antenna to determine if they are friend or foe. If they encounter something that isn’t part of the colony, then the fun really begins and they demonstrate why they are such a formidable force. Releasing chemicals to signal nearby allies they will swiftly dispatch most opponents by using overwhelming numbers. When one colony encroaches on another’s territory, a full scale battle will often ensue. The fact ants are often found in large numbers means they are a valuable food source for a wide variety of other species, including spiders, birds, frogs, lizards and small mammals.
When you take all this into account, it does make you wonder; who doesn’t want ants?