Do you remember the Uncle Milton ant farms we had as children? My siblings and I spent hours watching the bustling world of these industrious and cooperative little insects. Fascination with ant colonies has not waned as evidenced by the number and variety of ant farm designs available today.
However, our attitude towards ants seems to change when we find them inhabiting our yards. We regard them as nuisances and potentially harmful to our plants and lawns. Therefore, we take measures, sometimes toxic, to get rid of them.
We can find several types of ants living in our yard areas. They construct their nests in a variety of places; mounds of soil, leaf litter, rotting wood, under rocks, under pavement and foundations, and even in trees. However, all ant species have one thing in common, they use their unique communication skills to cooperatively build and maintain nests that provide the right environment for their offspring.
Ants are more beneficial than harmful to our yards. By tunneling in their nest areas, these tiny engineers aerate the soil and allow water and nutrients to flow directly to plant roots. Ants help with the production of new plants. They carry seeds with protein-rich external structures called elaiosomes to their nests to feed the larvae. After consumption, ants discard the undamaged seeds in the nest’s nutrient-rich waste heap where they can germinate. By feeding on dead insects, ants return nutrients to the soil and thus help fertilize surrounding plants. They are also are a food source for other yard wildlife such as birds, lizards and frogs.
Ants can help us identify insect infestations. A line of ants moving up and down a tree usually indicates the presence of aphids or other insects that attack plants. These sap- sucking bugs secrete a substance called honeydew that is yummy to some ant species. Ants “milk “ the insects for the honeydew by stroking their abdomens with their antennae. They swallow the sweet liquid sending it to their special holding stomachs then go back to the nest to share with the queen and other workers. To ensure continued honeydew production, ants will sometimes move aphid eggs to their nests at night to protect them from predators. Then they escort the eggs back to the plant the next morning.
A few ant species will bite and sting, such as the black fire ants native to the Southern United States. However, non-native red ants imported from South America are a more serious problem. They can damage crops and cause a decline in native ant populations.
When there is a need to control ant populations in our yards, there are number of nontoxic deterrence methods available online.
Ant Appreciation Activity for Children
1. Discuss the intriguing world of an ant colony using visuals or, if available, an ant farm.
2. Go outside and find an ant mound or follow a trail to a nest.
- Reiterate what goes on inside an ant colony
- Point out other locations where ants build nests
- Discuss how ants are beneficial to a yard environments
Note: If you cannot find any ants, find a spot where they would build a nest and follow the above.
3. Have children make drawings of ant colonies in yard areas of their choice.
For more life science/ arts intergrated STEAM activities for children go to https://shikoandwalteradventures.com/for-educators/
Ant Colony/ Ask a Biologist: https://askabiologist.asu.edu/explore/secrets-superorganism
Life Cycle of an Ant Colony/ Ask a Biologist: https://askabiologist.asu.edu/ant-colony-life-cycle
Ants & Aphid/ Gardening No How: https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/plant-problems/pests/insects/controlling-aphids-and-ants.htm
Ants Aren’t Your Enemy / Fine Gardening: https://www.finegardening.com/article/ants-arent-your-enemy
Benefits of Ants/ Old Farmer’s Almanac: https://www.almanac.com/content/getting-antsy-ants-garden#