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by Ed Rosenthal, adapted by Jane Klein
If you see only a few ants wandering around in your house or garden, rest assured that they are scouts, looking for new sources of food and shelter. If they find something good they will report it back to the colony and there will soon be a trail with a steady stream of pedestrians on a mission. Whatever their goals, with few exceptions, they are in conflict with yours.
The next time ants approach your picnic blanket, consider these ways that ants and humans are similar.
- Both have the biggest brains in proportion to bodies of their kingdom.
- They live in complex social communities.
- Both have individuals that will sacrifice themselves for the benefit of the community.
- Both have complex modes of communication.
- Individuals change tasks as they mature.
- They teach tasks to young members. (Teaching entails watching the student’s learning pace as well the teacher performing the tasks slowly or in an exaggerated style.)
- Both have colonized territories far beyond their native lands.
- Both farm and herd other organisms for food.
- A small proportion of members produces or obtains food for the entire group.
- They are capable of complex architecture for homes and workplaces.
- They air condition their homes.
- Individuals cannot survive alone. They need the community.
Most species of ants encountered in the garden do not attack plants. They are likely to be herding aphids or mealybugs for their sugary “honeydew” or preying on other small organisms. Once ants find sufficient numbers of their honeydew “cows,” they move them to new feeding areas, spreading them throughout the plant. Once they exhaust a feeding area, ants move their herd to other plants and other greener pastures.
Some species of ants do feed on seeds, seedlings, or soft plant tissue. These include leafcutter ants, which can defoliate shrubs. They are farmers and use the leaf fragments as a medium to grow a specific fungus that they use for food. Other species of ants nest in plant containers. This disturbs the roots and leads to plant failure. Flushing the container several times with a castile soap such as Dr. Bronner’s® peppermint in a water solution will drive out the colony. Mix one teaspoon soap to one quart water; to supercharge the solution, add a teaspoon of cinnamon powder. If a single plant is infected, it might be easier to just discard it.
Knowing ant behavior will help select a method of getting rid of them. Except for fire ants, there are no biological controls for ants. That is, there are no insects, parasites, fungi, or bacteria commercially available that can help fight against the ravages of ants. However, there are a number of ways to keep ants from your garden or plants.
Since ants are crawling insects the only way that they can get from point A to point B is by walking to it. Barriers prevent ants from getting to their target.
• Moats: Ants cannot cross water barriers. Surround potted plants or food containers in trays of water. Better if they can be elevated by blocks of wood or Styrofoam.
• Diatomaceous earth, composed of the silica skeletons of long-dead sea animals, is available as a finely ground powder. Its sharp points pierce the ant’s exoskeleton, causing death. Diatomaceous earth must remain dry because it is ineffective when wet.
• Deter ants with Mother Nature’s herbs. Use cayenne, cinnamon, citrus rind, clove, “Italian” seasoning, lemongrass, mint, rosemary, and/or thyme as powder, tea, or oil, alone or in combination. Sprinkling these spices on the surface of the soil or watering with a tea brewed from them is both toxic and repellant.
In permanent nests, 90 percent of the ants work inside. The significance of this is that destroying only the ants that you can see is not enough to protect your garden. Lost workers are quickly replaced. Instead, entire colonies must be destroyed. A fast acting anticide won’t do. Instead use slow acting insecticides that the foragers will be able to deliver to the colony over a period of time. The poisoned food will be distributed throughout the nest and will eventually be ingested by the queen.
• Ant stakes and ant baits use minute amounts of poison to target and kill ants. They are very safe. Ants carry these tiny bits of poison back to their nests.
• Create a perimeter of boric acid powder. Ants may cross the barrier, but their bodies will be coated with the acidic powder that slowly kills them. They live long enough to carry the poison back to their nest to share with their nest mates. Boric acid is used by humans externally for skin conditions and is not considered hazardous.
• Pyrethrum is a natural insecticide derived from a plant in the chrysanthemum family. It kill ants, but is also toxic to fish and reptiles.