Ants in Your Plants

By Zacharias, Colleen | Winnipeg Free Press, August 26, 2017 | Go to article overview

Ants in Your Plants


Zacharias, Colleen, Winnipeg Free Press


Legions of ants have been on the march throughout most of this summer, building their tall dirt-filled mounds or extensive underground colonies in lawns and flowerbeds as well as small crater nests between paving stones. Homeowners have varying degrees of tolerance for this industrious species, whose habits can mess with our idea of landscape esthetics.

Fastidiousness turns to genuine concern and a call to action if the ant species happens to be the carpenter ant (Camponotus), which nests in decaying wood, excavating larger and larger galleries for their growing brood until significant damage has been caused to the structure (an old deck, for example). Ants can really raise the hackles of homeowners, though, when a colony is discovered to have taken up residence indoors.

The pharaoh ant (Monomorium pharaonis) is an invasive species that is especially troublesome. A pale brown to reddish insect that is about 1.5 to two millimetres in size, the pharaoh ant is about the same size as the little black ant (Monomorium minimum). However, an identifying characteristic is that the pharaoh ant is more hairy.

In the past 10 years, there were only minimal sightings of the pharaoh ant in Winnipeg residences. Today, the number of sightings of this household ant has grown exponentially. As a tropical species, it survives only in an indoor environment in our winter climate. The size of colonies — each with multiple — roving queens, can be substantial with nesting sites found in every conceivable area of an affected home. There are no chemical control methods available.

Let’s take a deep, collective breath.

A few troublemakers do not define an entire genus. There are probably 60 or more species of ants in Manitoba, says Terry Galloway, an entomologist and expert in insect taxonomy at the University of Manitoba. Ants (of the family Formicidae) live in colonies, and many species play an important role in the ecosystem.

“Some of the thatching ants,” Galloway says, “have been considered as biological control agents for forest pests.” Thatching ants are swarming ants that make big hills covered in dried vegetation.

Ants are especially important, according to Galloway, because of their impact on soil. The action of creating tunnels beneath the soil surface increases aeration, which allows greater penetration of air and water — an important ecological role. Worker ants also bring soil particles from deeper levels up to the surface.

A few ant species are important seed dispersers for certain species of plants that have specialized seed arils called elaiosomes. One example is the great white trillium (Trillium grandiflorum). When the seeds are shed by the plant, Galloway says, ants carry them back to their nest where they feed on just the elaiosome, a small light-coloured appendage that is located on the end of the seed. Fleshy structures that are rich in oils and proteins, elaiosomes attract ants who, once they have done feeding, discard the seed.

Ants’ better qualities aside, there is still that other matter of mounds and excavations. Formica fusca, a medium-size black ant, likes to build mounds, including some that are quite tall.

“Many species are found here in the heavy clay soils of the Red River Valley,” Galloway says, “and they will also create spreading nests in lawns that can be up to half a metre across, with multiple entrances.”

To ensure plenty of air access into their underground colony, ants will excavate soil around the grass roots. “Once the roots are exposed, the grass will turn yellow and die back,” Galloway says. …

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