Gardening Tips and Highlights Waushara County Master Gardeners

Ants play a helpful role in a garden by Christine Yesko

The fate of your garden depends on ants. That might sound like an overstatement, but these insects—which most people think of as pests—play several important roles in your yard’s ecosystem.   Ant are movers and shakers. Many ant species are predators of other insects. Without the millions of ants in your garden, more caterpillars, beetles, and grasshoppers would be left unchecked to devour your plants. Ants themselves are prey for larger predators. Northern Flickers are woodpeckers that specialize in feeding on ants. A Flicker laps up ants by the dozen with each flick of its long tongue. Horned lizards in the desert Southwest also feed on ants. Most backyard birds feed their babies insects, including ants. If your garden lacks a healthy ant population, these other critters will be less likely to visit. Plants also rely on ants. Ant tunnels channel air, water, and organic matter directly to plant roots and loosen the soil, making it easier for roots to grow. Ants also disperse the seeds of many plants, including trilliums, violets, Dutchman’s breeches, trout lilies, and Datura. The seeds of such plants have fleshy, nutritious appendages called eliaosomes, which lure ants. The ants feed the eliaosomes to their larvae and then ditch the seeds in nutrient-rich midden heaps outside the colony, where the seeds germinate.

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