The Wonder of Wildlife - Ants more foe than friends?

I was watching a line of ants the other day (life is busy under lockdown), and I remembered a curious fact. Ants can fall from over a mile high and not be harmed.
This, I thought, is a shame, as I really don’t like ants. Not that I am planning to drop them out of the next aeroplane I happen to be in – but I dislike the damage they cause to plant roots, especially in pots. An ant nest will cause so many tunnels within the soil that it dries out, and creates air pockets which means the roots don’t get to touch the soil.

Here’s another reason I don’t like ants. They encourage aphids. I’ll let Prof Goulson explain.
Aphids feed on the sap of plants. Although it is rich in sugar, what the aphid really wants is the small amount of proteins and amino acids in the sap. So they secrete the sugar as a waste product, something quaintly called ‘honeydew’. Ants love this source of sweet carbohydrate. So they cleverly encourage aphids by ‘farming’ them. As Goulson says ants are like dairy farmers, protecting their livestock from predators (ladybirds), milking them, even grooming them. Sometimes they shelter the aphids overnight in their nests, and if an aphid threatens to fly away – the ant neatly bites off its wings to keep it captive.

It’s not just aphids that ants look after. They will do the same with scale insects – those flat brown insects which suck the sap of many indoor and greenhouse plants, creating more honeydew, and making the plant sickly.

However, ants can help the gardener. They will eat small moth caterpillars which might otherwise have munched through some of my veg. And in China, orange growers hang nests of citrus ants to act as predators on particular citrus pests. Ants will also help breakdown organic matter in the soil.

Admittedly the common black ant is relatively harmless to a human. But I have been bitten by an ant, probably its cousin the yellow meadow ant. And it ruined my picnic. As I said before, I really don’t like ants …..

More about Sarah...
Sarah has been growing organically for over 30 years. Gardening has always run alongside her career in museums and climate change studies, whether it was growing salad leaves in pots on a London windowsill, tomatoes in a tiny flat in Hong Kong, or her present plot in rural Oxfordshire. She shares this space with hens, two (very fat) sheep, two cats, a husband and any wildlife which wanders in. Foxes, badgers, kites, owls, moles and buzzards are regular visitors – as are bats, butterflies and bees. She readily admits that being outside, helping things to grow, keeps her sane and completely content.

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