The success of ants

As insects go, the success of ants is pretty impressive and they are possibly the most successful insects when it comes to distribution.  With the exception of Antarctica, the Artic and a couple of islands, ants have spread to just about every piece of land on earth and have literally conquered the globe.

Scientists in the field of insects have estimated that there are at least 1.5 million ants on the planet for every human being.  Now that’s success.  Over 12,000 species of the ant are currently known to exist and many live in tropical regions.  To put their true numbers into perspective one single acre of Amazon rainforest is likely to house a colony of 3.5 million ants.

Ants generally live in colonies of huge numbers but not all ants build nests.  Some ants are literally homeless.  There are 200 known species, often referred to as army ants, who have two phases in their life – nomad and stationary.  During the nomad phase, ants are on the move all day, targeting other ant colonies for food.  At night the nomad ants will build a temporary nest but will continue travelling during daylight.  When the time comes for the Queen of the colony to lay her eggs, the ants will cease travelling and enter a stationary phase as the ants wait for the eggs to hatch.  During this time, ants use their own bodies to make a nest around the Queen, to protect her, their food and her eggs.

Ants know how to bargain.  Ants will shelter within plants and shrubbery and in exchange for that shelter the ants will defend and shield the very plant they are hiding within.  They will guard it from other insects or herbivorous mammals and will even prune away any parasitic weeds that may be attempting to grow on their host plant.  In other words, ants will use their host plant to their own advantage by protecting it as they use it.

Ants have also learned that being social really does pay off.  They divide jobs within the colony amongst all the different ants so that each ant knows specifically what it’s doing.  All the ants working within a colony are female. The male ants do not work – they are literally redundant and are only required to mate with the Queen of the colony.  The Queen does not work either as her only job is to lay eggs.

In fact ants are so clever that one species has even found a way to reproduce without the need for the male ant at all.  Researches in the field of insects discovered that a species of ant found in Central America has the ability to reproduce sexually so that all the ant offspring are clones of the Queen herself.

We cannot underestimate the success of the ant.  Their huge distribution globally is only rivaled by that of humans.  Whilst some ants live in natural crevices and openings in small numbers, the average ant colony contains thousands.  There are also super colonies which can be found around the world including the USA, Australia and Southern Europe containing more than 300 million individual ants.

Next time you see a trail of ants in your kitchen spare a few seconds to marvel at the success of this humble insect.

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Controlling and Eradicating Ants in the Flower Garden

Ever wondered why your flower beds or grass borders are swarming with ants?  With no visible food source have you found yourself thinking why they act as they do?  This month my lawn borders were literally alive with ants to the point that I couldn’t walk on the grass.  It was driving me crazy as I couldn’t use the garden as I wanted and it looked like they were expanding their territory and making nests which I knew would be a disaster.
Horticulturalists strangely don’t usually categorize ants as a garden pest. Ants aerate the soil and function as pollinators.
They also eat the eggs and larvae of fleas and other pests and control other insects such as plant-destroying aphids.  However most people with gardens and flower beds consider the ant a very unwelcome visitor and know the severe damage ant investations can cause. It was time for me to make up my own organic ant repellent.  I have used it before with great success, although never on such a large scale.  So I mixed one third of Eco-friendly lemon-based washing up liquid (Ecover) with two thirds water.  My home-made repellent literally kills them on contact without harming the grass or flowers so I just began spritzing.
I also filled up empty bottles with my home-made mixture to literally pour onto ant-hills.  I followed their movements and managed to locate nests  although it took about a week to completely eradicate them all.  However during this time I did not find any visible food source, something which was puzzling me.  In the past when I have had ant infestations they have always lead me to a source of food, whether it be the remains of something or live aphids.
Some two weeks later, still thankfully with an ant-free lawn, I was working in my garden digging up the original grass border that had been infested.  To my surprise I literally pulled out of the soil a whole dead Peonie flower head.  Still complete with petals and stem it was literally buried deep inside the soil.
I hit Google and was surprised to learn that ants love Peonie flowers. Ants are attracted to sweet foods, and the Peonie is apparenty a nectar-rich flower.  The Peonie, in particular, seems to attract ants just as they turn from buds to blossoms as they are attracted to the sucrose that collects on Peonie buds.  In this case, as I don’t have any Peonie plants myself, a Peonie head obviously blew into my garden, settled on my lawn, and the ants located it and pulled it into the soil to live on and built their nest around.  Although ants rarely inflict damage to live flowers or fruits in general, the attraction of a dead Peonie flower head can obviusly still cause untold damage to your garden should ants find it.
If you notice an infestation of ants like I did – look closely.  Ants only swarm with purpose and where you see an infestation of ants there is always a food source somewhere even if you can’t see it.  For example ants adore aphids which excrete sweet honeydew.  The ants, in exchange, will use and protect the aphids from other insects and literally attack their enemies such as the beneficial ladybird.  If you have aphids on your plants you need to get rid of them fast – the ants will then leave on their own accord and seek a food source elsewhere.
It’s wise to remember that ants are very sensitive to smells.  Whilst sweet odours will attract them, certain smells will repel them.  You can control ants with ant repelling essential oils and juice as I did.  Ants detest mint and lemon.  Grow mint in your garden where possible to keep them away.  When you do see ants and visable investations, make up my homemade mixture of lemon-based washing up liquid and water and spritz them.  Make sure its an organic version like Ecover which will be harmless to your plants and grass.  The mixture will kill the ants instantly and organically without the use of harmful chemicals.  Watch where they go, locate their nests and eradicate them fast.

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Real Life Story – Dealing with Ants

Having emigrated to the heady climate of the Mediterranean from the chilly shores of Britain, I have had to learn quickly how to live with bugs including dealing with ants. In Britain there might be the infamous rain – but there are no cockroaches in bathrooms or seasonal ants coming through the plug sockets.  

Ants live everywhere but while in Britain they live in the garden and have their own lives, here they unfortunately prefer the comfort of indoor life – and dealing with ants is part of the course.  What I have learned, certainly in this part of the world, is that there are 3 ‘waves’ of the species.  I call them waves as that’s just what it feels like when dealing with them.  

The early spring season kicks off with ants with atittude.  Dark black, very fast-moving medium sized insects that bite hard, leaving very itchy bite marks in places it’s best not to think that an ant has got to.  These are hardy ants forming exceptionally long and often complicated trails from food source to nest and amongst them very large knobbly scouters – the ones that single handedly seek the food source. These fast moving biters like to nest in soil and you can often spot their nests in freshly dug earth mounds.  All ants have a basic language and communicate simple messages through their pheromones such as FOOD and DANGER.  Scouter ants will send out a message when they have sourced food which alerts all its friends to follow the scouter’s pheromone based trail.  Where there was once one solitary ant within minutes there will be a hundred.

The next wave, at the beginning of summer brings a smaller ant, also a biter, lighter in colour but just as hardy.  These are just as clever, and just as fast, finding routes into your home through crumbling power sockets or cracks in skirtings.  These also have larger ants as scouters and an extraordinary sense of smell, locating food sources in the most unlikely places, often a great distance from the floor or through apparently well-sealed cupboards.  Quite how they do it is mind-boggling.

The last wave of this prevalent insect, which stays around all summer until autumn (fall), is the tiny ant – so small that they will make a home in the tiniest hole in a ceramic tile and seemingly live off any food source, from a food crumb to a blob of vegetable oil or a gloopy shampoo bottle.  These ants move slower, are all the same size, are more delicate, but are quick-acting and seem to get everywhere and I will often find this ant climbing up the sofa or table leg for no apparent reason, with a line of its tiny friends in tow.

How do I deal with them all?  I make washing-up borders – lines of liquid which they seemingly do not like to cross.  The result is a sticky floor but less ants reducing ultimately to no ants. I use Ecover which is an Eco-friendly liquid which appears to contain real lemon juice, a fruit acid which ants do not like.  Real juice squeezed directly from a lemon does not seem to have the same effect though.  I also use boiling water straight from the kettle (when I find their entrances in and out) and directly onto ant hills.  I keep spray bottles of Ecover washing up liquid, diluted in water, in rooms around the house.  I continually spritz this diluted washing-up liquid along skirting boards, crumbling holes, edges and possible routes in. I also use Ecover lemon based multi surface cleaner, also Eco-friendly, for continual mopping.  The lemon washes away the pheromone trail leaving a lot of confused ants with no direction – easy pickings for me to clean them right away.

It has to be noted that some ants are so robust that boiling water does not phase them initially.  It may kill some head on but they are soon back at the same spot doing their thing.  It may take a while for the ants to realise the boiling water will not stop until they have evacuated.  You must persevere until they give up – they will.

Refrain from poisons.  Poisons only kill on contact which is the exact same result as lemon based washing up liquid. The lemon in the washing up liquid will kill them stone dead on contact too but is not poisonous to you, your kids and pets.

One thing I will say is that in the end one can become obsessed with watching for ants and dealing with ants.  With eyes permanently glued to the floor and spray bottle of washing-up liquid at the ready, to be successful in dealing with ants you need a system that suits you and to stick with it.  In the end the ant will lose.

 

H Smith

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