Ants, the gardener's friends in low places

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, September 9, 2010

I moved a storage bin in the garden the other day and found Ant City. You know the scene: Hundreds of ants scurry back and forth in apparent chaos, but not before taking the next generation with them, the eggs and grubs cradled in their jaws.

They meet up somewhere later and rub antennae to talk about it. "Man, that was scary."

I remember being amazed by this frenetic rescue of young when I saw it as a kid. I am no less impressed today. Ants, like their insect relatives the honeybees, form astonishingly complex and interesting societies. Unlike the hard-pressed honeybee, ants are roundly disliked. Some bite and sting, so they are all reviled.

This antipathy may be worse this year because the common little house ant, the sort I disturbed, has been wandering into homes in alarming numbers. Ants like to work the soil -- they are gardeners at heart -- but the dryness a few weeks ago made that difficult, so they decided to explore your pantry instead.

The standard advice is to keep your kitchen and pantry clean, especially of sugary spills. Scouts find these high-energy treats and lay pheromone-laced trails for dozens of foragers. A common response is to scatter boric acid, and yet who wants poisons in the kitchen? If you want to be green, try a horned lizard. Ants are to horned lizards what pizzas are to teenagers.

But why kill ants? Eric Grissell, a retired entomologist who worked for the Department of Agriculture, says ants are valuable partners in the yard. Grissell, author of the newly published book "Bees, Wasps, and Ants" (Timber Press) writes that "ants fulfill a major role in the environment by aerating and mixing the soil, enhancing water infiltration, recycling and incorporating dead and dying organic matter and nutrients." And that's not all.

Say you had a woodland garden and you planted some trilliums. After a few years, given nice humusy soil, you would notice that seedlings had sprung up a few feet from the original stock. The same is the case with daffodils and violas, to name others. How did they get there? Ants, of course.

That runt of a pansy, the Johnny jump-up, is named for the way it just springs into leaf and flower from nowhere in April and May. Wonder no more; thank an ant. Grissell says ants actively disperse seeds of more than 3,000 species of herbaceous plants, and maybe many more. Trilliums, violas, corydalis and many other plants produce seeds coated with nutrients. Ants haul the seeds home, feed the goodies to their young, and the seed then germinates.

Ants also swarm over developing peony buds, and this freaks people out. The buds secrete a sugary solution that the ants are drawn to. No big deal. Ants also shepherd aphids for their honeyed secretions, which might make ants bad guys in the garden, since they afford protection to a pest. Grissell said that in spite of this symbiosis, aphids still get reduced to lifeless husks by wasps that prey on them.

I'm sure I'll feel differently if fire ants make it one day to Washington, but ants are okay in my book, even if they do conga lines on the kitchen counter or make annoying little sand volcanoes in the cracks between the patio. If an ant is exploring the hairs on my arm, I'd rather blow it away than smack it.

Chris Trueman, 32, is an artist who had to overcome his unease with killing ants to create an artwork called "Self Portrait With Gun." The image is of him as a boy, dressed in a cowboy outfit, but made from 200,000 ants that he killed and pasted to a caramel-colored plexiglass sheet. In the darkest areas of the picture, the ants are laid as much as half an inch thick.

This took several years to create, halted initially by his lack of enough wild ants and, when he found a supply in bulk, pangs of guilt. The red-brown harvester ants arrived in a large jar, 40,000 in number and costing $500. That's 80 ants for a dollar, if you're counting. Actually, how do you count ants? Wait for them to go to sleep?

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