June was National Pollinator month, and folks got to help pollinators by planting flowers. Easy sell. Now, here is another beneficial insect that is a tad harder to find popular support for – ants. Some people are of the belief that the only good ant is a dead ant. While it’s true that there are some troublesome ants out there, there far more kinds of beneficial ants doing their part to actually help the soil and improve growing conditions for plants.
The Sonoran Desert is home to more than three hundred different species of ants. They can be divided into four major groups; seed-harvester, leaf-cutter, honey-pot, and army, all with a role in helping the desert garden. Ants dig extensive tunnels which are important to help aerate the soil. (Humid areas have worms here we have ants). One ant group helps compost vegetation. A number of ant species consume aphids and other plant pests. All ants produce waste that helps fertilize the soil. Plus, ants provide food for a number of desert animals, which in turn may be beneficial for the garden.
Seed-harvester ants collect seeds of grasses and wildflowers to feed their larvae. Their colonies generally make a wide cleared space around the nest. With no plants on the surface, the rain quickly runs off and their seed larders stay dry and ungerminated. When a seed-ant larder gets opened (by the foot of a javelina perhaps) there can later be a lovely patch of wildflowers. These ants forage so widely that they help spread plants to new areas.
Leaf-cutter ant nests are generally just a hole tucked in the ground somewhere. These ants come out in the cooler hours, cut leaves and take them back to the nest to use to grow special fungus on. The leaves are not their food, the fungus is. Certain species of plants grow the ant fungus better than others. If you have a Tombstone rose and a colony of leaf-cutter ants moves into the neighborhood, kiss your rose goodbye and plant something else. Incidently, the leaf cutter fungus is completely dependent on the ants for its life. It can not grow outside an ant colony. The ants must nurture it, give it the right amount of humidity and oxygen. This creates a wonderful environment for other desert plants to grow in.
Honey-pot ants are like something out of a science-fiction story. They have a special caste that gets stuffed full of nectar and the “juice” of such insects as aphids. These special caste individuals get grossly swollen up and can’t move. This stored liquid then is used to feed the whole colony when the dry season comes. If you don’t like aphids on your roses, cultivate some honey-pot ants.
The last group, the army ants, are cannibals. They will invade the nests of stationary ants, eat them all, and then, prey gone, they move on. They are also known to eat other insects. They are very useful to help keep balance in the ant world, plus they help clean the desert floor and keep the carbon cycle turning.
Ants feed a number of desert animals. The “horny toad” (Phrynosoma species), once very common in the Tucson area, feeds almost entirely on ants. Desert spiny lizards also like ants. Ant lions live to eat ants. And javelina and coyotes have been reported to dig up nests of ants and eat them. So maybe you wouldn’t want javelina in your yard, but the horny toad is too cute!
Ants and their predators are interesting to have around. With some care you can share your yard with them, and perhaps you will get to see an elusive horny toad one day. It takes five to eight ant colonies to provide enough food for this shy lizard.
(Editor’s Note: Jacqueline’s latest book, “Fruit and Vegetable Gardening in the Southwest” is due out this summer. Jacqueline will be back in September to help you with some garden coaching. More at www.gardeningwithsoule.com.)