I bet one of the most common questions I receive is about ants in the garden. People think if they see one crawling on a plant, they need to bring out the big guns to eradicate them all. For the most part, with the exception of fire ants or carpenter ants, having ants in your garden is a good thing. Instead of a pest, you have to look at them like a partner in your garden because what they bring to the effort is nothing short of amazing.
Ants in the flower garden
Back east many of the woodland wildflowers are planted through a process called myrmecochory, from the word myrmex, which means “ant” in Greek.
What’s so cool is these particular plants, including the wild bleeding heart, trillium, wild violets, and many more we know and love, rely on the ants to haul the seeds away from the parent plant, which avoids overcrowding, and protect the seed until germination. To encourage the ants to do this, the seed has a feature called elaiosomes, which are parts of the seeds that are rich in lipids and are an important food source for the ants.
So when the ants find these seeds, they bring them back to the colony to feed the elaisome to the larvae. In the process, the seeds are carried away from the parent plant, protected from predators, and in essence, planted in a dandy, nutrient rich location within the ant hill. It’s a win-win situation for everything involved. There’s also evidence that the Western harvester ant does the same for sage brush seeds, although it doesn’t appear that it’s as prevalent out this way as it is back east.
Ants and peonies
The other interesting story, or rather wive’s tale, is concerning ants on peony buds. Since I was growing up I heard that the peonies had to have the ants on them or they wouldn’t open. This isn’t true at all, although there is a special relationship between the flower and the insect. Peony buds produce a nectar on the outside scales of the buds that the ants love. This is why they’re all over the buds as soon as they look like they’re going to open. The positive aspect of this effort is the ants actually fend off other insects that might chew on the peony buds so they are the beneficial guardians of the plants.
As far as ants in the garden, for the most part there is no need to freak out if you see them on or around plants. They are terrific soil aerators as they build tunnels and colonies below the soil surface and do a fair amount of the clean up.
Dealing with harmful ants
With that said, I have heard of instances where the ant mound was in an area that harmed specific plants. In that case, you might want to get rid of them, or encourage them to move elsewhere. Years ago, if we had an ant problem, many of us grabbed a can of Diazinon, but since it’s been shown to have some negative health affects to people and pets, it’s no longer an option for ant control.
The good news is there is a much safer and, I think, just as effective means of eliminating them. Mix sugar and borax (yes, the stuff some of us use in our laundry) in a 3:1 ratio with enough water to make it a paste. Then you can add some sort of syrup, like the fake maple syrup, or honey. Place the paste in lid tops or other shallow containers and set near the ant problem. The sugar encourages them to eat it, while the borax totally messes up their system, killing them.
If you have ants in the garden, there’s no need to panic. As long as they’re not causing any harm, do the same for them.