When we talk about ants in the garden, we really need to also talk about aphids, slugs, birds, ladybugs, compost, peonies, and you. A balanced ecosystem prevents any one creature from becoming a nuisance. Everything is interconnected and beautiful when it’s in balance. But what do we do when it isn’t in balance and ants are a problem?
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In this post I’ll talk about what balance looks like as well as what it looks like when there isn’t balance with your ant population. I’ll also talk about what to do when imbalance happens.
Some people feel very strongly that it’s best to leave nature alone and let it self-correct. There’s a lot of wisdom in that sentiment. However, it doesn’t always work. Keep reading to find out why it doesn’t work and what you can do to help things along.
What Are Ants
Ants are insects that live in colonies. They have a queen that only emerges for a mating flight, then spends the rest of her life laying eggs. In exchange for laying eggs, she gets to live longer than her workers. (I’m pretty happy to not be an ant right now, how about you?)
In the Edmonton Area we have Formica ants, also known as field ants, thatch ants, and/or mound ants. Carpenter ants are also seen in the garden (these are the big black ants). And lastly we have Pharaoh ants in the Edmonton Area, but these ones aren’t as common in the garden (they’re a house pest).
The formica ants are the most common and they’re less of a nuisance than the others. Both Carpenter and Pharaoh ants are more of a concern if they get in your home.
Cycles of Increased Population
Ants are cold-blooded, they rely on external temperature control. In the spring, ants don’t wake up until the ground has thawed, and the air has warmed up enough. The queen won’t become active until there’s been 2 weeks with temperatures above zero.
A few years ago many people complained of more ants during a hot, dry summer. The weather created the perfect opportunity for ants to be more active and also for aphids and other pests to thrive, which in-turn allowed ants to thrive.
These cycles result in a year or two with a large ant population, which then draws in a greater diversity of predators bugs as well as birds, such as robins and wrens, who feed on ants.
Usually one to two years after a boom in a pest population, you see a boom in the bird or other predator population. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a happy balance in your yard. But rest assured as long as your yard is inviting and safe for birds and bugs, they will come and keep the cycle from getting completely out of hand.
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But sometimes the problem seems to get worse and worse and we never see the birds or other predators come to our yard. Why does this happen?
Usually this is a case of having a garden or yard that offers a hospitable environment for ants, but not their predators. If this is the case, then leaving it alone will only make things worse.
Problems Caused By Ants
Ants create unsightly mounds and can make it impossible for anything to grow in certain areas of the garden. They can also move into our homes and cause a lot of property damage.
Ants are excellent at what they do, and that is cleaning up the garden, protecting their queen, and building ever larger empires.
Sometimes that happens where we don’t want it or in a way that works counter to our over all garden plan. For instance, ants love the sweet, sticky stuff that comes out of the soft tissues of plants. But ants can get that even easier if they have a bunch of aphids around.
Ants farm aphids and ‘milk’ them for the honeydew they produce. This can be a real problem for your plants if you don’t have a healthy population of ladybugs or other predator bugs to fight the ants and eat the aphids.
But most of the time ants are not a problem.
Benefits of Ants
Ants really are excellent at cleaning up the garden and even offer protection from some pests that want to eat our garden.
For instance, ants love peonies because the peony bud has a lot of sweet, sticky honeydew all over it. The ants come to collect the honeydew, and attack anything that gets in the way. This offers your peony protection from bugs that might eat it.
Ants also eat the eggs of many other insects, including the ones you don’t want in your garden. They help decompose organic matter faster, which adds nutrients to your soil that are then able to be used by your plants. They aerate soil, and are also food for other insects as wells birds.
How To Control Ants in Your Garden
In a balanced garden you often don’t need to do anything about ants, nature takes care of them for you. As mentioned above, there are cycles where ant populations surge and become out of control. When this happens there are some things you can do to get it under control again.
- Maintain a Balanced Garden
- A balanced garden provides space for different creatures to live. bug hotels and/or mulch provide places for many different types of bugs to live and thrive in your garden.
- Different types of creatures need different water sources. Offering water that’s easily accessible for the beneficial bugs is part of creating an inviting home for them in your yard.
- Create an environment that’s similar to their preferred habitat. For instance many birds prefer a woodland feel. Shaded, humid, with plenty of ground cover. Trees surrounded with shrubs and other lover growing plants in an area of your yard with low traffic offer thrushes, wrens and other birds a safe place to forage for their preferred foods (insects).
- No insecticides/pesticides. Bugs eat the pesticides, birds eat the bugs, birds die.
- Offer food sources for the bugs you want in your garden. Yes, this means some aphids, some ants, some slugs are all needed. But you also want flowers that bloom from spring through fall.
- Offer An Area For Ants To Live
- Part of controlling the ant population is offering them a place to live that you’re okay with.
- Ants love peonies. They also need other organic matter, and space to build their home.
- Make Other Areas Less Inviting
- Plant mint in your garden (please note that mint spreads quickly by runners).
- Use peppermint oil spray around areas you don’t want ants.
- Diatomaceous earth sprinkled around your plants protect them from ants and many other pests. Apply on a calm day with no wind, use a mask, and reapply after rain.
- Cinnamon sprinkled in your garden also offers some deterrent qualities for ants, other bugs, and also most cats (but you really need a lot of it to be effective).
- Decrease Colony Size
- Borax mixed with sugar attracts ants, they bring it back to the hill, and decreases colony size.
- Baking soda and sugar on a plastic lid or saucer also attracts them, and kills the ones that eat it. (Avoid adding acids or bases directly to your garden, put them in a dish instead).
- Cornmeal (or anything else that expands when it get’s wet) sprinkled on their hill also kills any that eat it.
- Equal mixed with water or apple juice poured on the hill or placed in a dish beside the hill is also very effective at killing ants.
You don’t need to eradicate ants, but if you offer them a place to live, protect where you don’t want them, and also decrease their immediate colony size, it offers your garden a chance to find balance again.