June was National Pollinator month, and folks got to help pollinators by planting flowers. Easy sell! Now here is another beneficial insect that is harder to find popular support for – ants. While it’s true that there are some troublesome ants out there, there far more kinds of beneficial ants doing their part to improve the soil and better the growing conditions for plants.
The Sonoran Desert is home to over 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 garden. Ants dig extensive tunnels which are important to aerate the soil. (Humid areas have worms – here we have ants).
Seed-harvester ants collect seeds of grasses and wildflowers to feed their larvae. Their colonies 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 a hungry javalina perhaps) you may have a patch of wildflowers the following spring.
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 home to grow a special fungus on. The leaves are not their food, the fungus is. Some species of plants grow the 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.) The fungus is dependent on the ants for its life and can’t grow outside an ant colony. The ants must nurture it, give it the right amount of humidity and oxygen, incidentally creating great growing conditions for plants.
Honey-pot ants are something out of science-fiction. The colony works to support some members that do nothing but get stuffed full of nectar and the “juice” of insects such as aphids. These individuals get grossly swollen and can’t move. The stored liquid then is used to feed the whole colony when the dry season comes.
The last group, the army ants, are basically 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 important to help keep balance in the ant world.
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 javalina and coyotes have been reported to dig up nests of ants and eat them. So maybe you wouldn’t want javalina 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.
Want to learn more about gardening in our region? Look for my free lectures at your local Pima County Library branch, Tubac Presidio, Tucson Festival of Books and other venues. After each event I will sell and sign copies of my books, including Southwest Fruit and Vegetable Gardening (Cool Springs Press, $23).
© Article copyright by Jacqueline A. Soule. All rights reserved. Republishing an entire blog post or article is prohibited without permission. I receive many requests to reprint my work. My policy is that you may use a short excerpt but you must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Photos © Jacqueline A. Soule where marked and they may not be used.