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The Wonderful World of Ants - fANTastic or cANTastrophe?

From farming to mind control, ants will blow your mind! Learn about some common backyard and near-to-home ants!

These ants from the genus Formica are displaying their unique farming behavior! These ants protect and breed the aphids, in order to collect honeydew from them!
These ants from the genus Formica are displaying their unique farming behavior! These ants protect and breed the aphids, in order to collect honeydew from them!

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, ants are some of the most abundant animals on earth. There is an estimated one quadrillion (1,000,000,000,000,000) of these little creatures! Odds are, you are familiar with the ones that take residence in your garden and sidewalk or the ones that invade your home in search of food to carry back to their colonies. But most ants live surprisingly complex lives and can provide extensive benefits to you, the birds living in your yard, and the surrounding ecosystem.


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What kinds of ants am I seeing?

With more than 12,000 species of ants, it can be difficult to tell one species of ant from the other. However, each species provides unique and crucial services to its ecosystem. Some of the more common ants include carpenter ants, pavement ants, and harvester ants. Learn more about them below!

 

Learn more about ant identification in North America!

ANTS OF NORTH AMERICA
 

Carpenter ants

Carpenter ants belong to the family Formicidae and the genus Camponotus. They are known for their habit of excavating tunnels from wood to build their nests. This behavior gives them their name. To find a nest, look for wood shavings next to a dead log or wood features in your home. You can also identify a carpenter ant based on its color and size. They are usually a darker color- brown or black. In terms of size, they are ⅜ to ½ an inch long. This isn’t tiny (for an ant), but it’s also not remarkably large. These species break down and recycle decaying wood in a forest, but this habit also makes them well-known as house pests. Learn humane ways to remove these ants in the next section!

A red carpenter ant from Yellowstone NP.
A red carpenter ant from Yellowstone NP.

Pavement ants

Pavement ants belong to the family Formicidae and the genus Myrmica. A common species of these pavement ants originated from Europe and came to the US at the beginning of the 19th century. They enjoy nesting in areas with soft, sandy soil, piling it up so that it looks like a tiny volcano poking through a crack in the cement. These ants are tiny, usually less than an ⅛ of an inch long. Like carpenter ants, they are dark brown or black in color. Pavement ants excel at foraging activities. This means that they are responsible for important ecosystem services like seed distribution and forest clean-up. Due to this talent, they are also house pests, invading homes to find food. They are not picky eaters, so they will consume anything they can reach. During the spring and summer, battles between unrelated pavement ant colonies are common. You may notice these wars along the edge of a sidewalk. It looks like a mass of ants, and if you watch closely, you will see them engaging in war tactics!


Harvester ants

Harvester ants are an abundant species, particularly in arid environments. They build large mounds of sand and pebbles. Because they live in dry, arid places with harsh winters, they need to build up a large storage of seeds to survive the winter. This is why they are called harvester ants! They belong to the genus Pogonomyrmex. They are medium-sized ants (¼ to ½ an inch long), red in color, and have unusually large heads in comparison to the rest of the body. They generally do not bother homeowners but can occasionally cause landscaping issues.


While these broad categories may help you narrow down which ants you are likely to experience in your yard or home, distinguishing ants to the species level is extremely difficult and requires significant experience!


Note: ALL ants belong to the family Formicidae. Which is wild due to the enormity of the family!


 

Raise and observe your own ants with an ant farm!

ant farm kit
 

How Do I Get Ants Out of My Home?

Since so many ants are considered pests, it is important to be able to get rid of them without hurting your local ecosystem or losing the benefits they provide to us!


The first step to getting rid of the ants is to sweep them up. This step can be performed gently, allowing the ants to be deposited back outside. Because most ants follow a pheromone highway left by their companions when going on food raids, the second step is to clear away their chemical trail. A washcloth with soap will take care of this, but bleach, wet wipes, or other cleaning supplies can also work. Finally, you will need to fill the holes and cracks where the ants are coming in. A bit of wood glue, caulk, or wood putty does the job. For additional security, use cayenne pepper, black pepper, cinnamon, or mint to create a chemical forcefield. Sprinkle these spices around the areas where the ants have been hangin’ out, and it should deter them from coming back.

Look for the drip of honeydew in the mandibles of this aphid farming ant!
Look for the drip of honeydew in the mandibles of this aphid farming ant!

How do ants help humans?

Many people consider ants to be unwelcome guests, but there are also many reasons to want them in your yard! Ants provide valuable benefits for your yard, birds and other wildlife, and the local ecosystem.


Ants help your garden

Ants are amazing helpers for your garden! They are in the same order as bees and wasps. As such, they share a love of nectar and will pollinate your flowers! In the process of collecting seeds, many ants will also distribute them throughout your garden and help propagate new flowers for next year. Similarly, ants are also good at recycling soil. Their tunnels keep dirt aerated, and ants will help put nutrients back into their surroundings because of their foraging habits. Essentially, having ants in your yard is free fertilizer!

 

Let your little ones learn more about the world of ants!

ANTS FOR KIDS
 

Ants are better than Orkin

Another benefit is pest control. This may seem counter-intuitive, but when there are more species of insects, they will compete with each other for resources. Essentially, one will keep the others from becoming too dominant, and vice versa. This means that one species never gets the chance to become a problem. In addition, ants that pollinate plants will also defend those plants from other insects!


Ants as a food source

Ants also provide many benefits to the birds in your yard! 96% of bird species in North America use insects as an essential dietary component. This is especially true in spring and summer when birds need more protein to feed their growing chicks. Ants make up a significant number of insects eaten each year, and healthy bug populations can ensure that there are also healthy bird populations!


Some birds have more intricate relationships with ants. For example, crows will sometimes use ants to take ‘baths,’ also known as anting. They do this by picking up ants in their beaks and rubbing them through their feathers or by laying on an ant colony and fluffing up their feathers until they are thoroughly covered in the ants. While scientists are not entirely sure why birds take ant baths, the leading theory is that ants keep the birds clean. Some ant species utilize formic acid, and rubbing them through feathers may remove parasites. Ants have proven useful for medicine in humans, so it makes sense that birds would utilize this as well!

 

Learn about keeping your own ants!

 

Ants provide many services to their ecosystems, and it can be helpful to cultivate a positive relationship with these amazing bugs!


 

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