How to Conquer Those Pesky Garden Ants

red fire ant worker on tree

Ah, ants. Those industrious, tireless creatures, capable of carrying up to twenty times their own body weight. They're a marvel… until they become pests. If you're dealing with an ant problem in your garden, here's what you need to know

Garden Ants: Are They Bad for Your Garden?

The first thing to keep in mind is that the presence of ants in your garden does not immediately mean they're causing problems (more on that later.) In fact, more often than not, ants are actually beneficial insects.

Benefits of Garden Ants

Here are a few of the ways ants help your garden:

Ants alert you to other pest problems.

Ants don't really bother eating garden plants, but they are attracted to certain insect pests, notably, aphids. They eat the sticky, sweet "dew" that the aphids secrete, often bringing it back to their nest.

Sometimes, ants even "farm" the aphids, protecting them from natural predators such as ladybugs. This can be a problem because without a natural predator, the ladybugs are able to flourish and cause damage to your plants

If you get rid of the aphids, the ant infestation should die down as well. Treat the aphids with insecticidal soap or Neem oil, which will kill them, leaving your plant healthier, and the ants without an easy source of food.

Ants help aerate the soil.

When you see the anthills in your garden, that's just the entrance to a series of tunnels -- some of which can go several feet deep into the soil. All of this digging aerates the soil, which helps plants grow stronger because the soil is less compacted.

Ants add fertility to the soil.

Earthworms are often praised for the fact that they both aerate and fertilize soils, but ants do the same thing -- their droppings add nutrients to the soil, just as those of earthworms do.

Problems Caused by Garden Ants

Unfortunately, ants can also easily become pests. Here are a few ways they can be a problem:

Tunneling ants can dislodge small seedlings.

If you have seeds germinating in beds, or grass seed germinating in your lawn, the tunneling and digging of ants can sometimes dislodge the tiny seedlings, causing them to dry up and die.

Ants steal small seeds.

Ants forage for food, and some of the food they take back to their colonies includes seeds. While this is wonderful for the dispersal of native wildflowers, for example, it's less wonderful if it's the seeds you've carefully spaced and planted in your garden.

Large anthills can smother lawn grasses.

Anthill with the green of the lawn grass

Anthills can sometimes be large, and if you have a lot of ants and a busy colony in your yard, the soil they mound up can smother the grass around it if the mound is large enough. Plus, if you like the look of a perfect, pristine green lawn, seeing the mounds likely isn't something that will make you happy.

Carpenter Ants and Fire Ants

While most ants can be mild nuisances at most, there are two types that most people absolutely won't want in their yard or garden.

  • Carpenter ants destroy wooden structures, including homes, garages, decks, and other outbuildings. These large ants are definitely a nuisance, and if you see signs of them, you'll want to get them under control as soon as possible.
  • Fire ants cause painful stings, and you definitely don't want them around, especially if you have small children who might get stung by them. If you see these small, reddish-brown ants, you'll want to track down their colony and try to get rid of them if it's in your yard or garden. The easiest way to identify fire ants, aside from getting stung, of course, is their color, and the fact that their middle section is made of 2 small sections rather than one smooth, round one.

Ways to Control Garden Ants

To get rid of ants in your garden, your efforts should be focused on destroying the colony or making it less appealing for the ants to be in your garden. It's usually not difficult to find the colony.

  1. Follow trails of ants. If you have spotted ants seeming to march in a line, follow them, and eventually they'll lead you back to their colony.
  2. Look for anthills. This is an entrance to their colony.
  3. If you don't spot any anthills, start looking under things like large stones, pavers or logs. If you lift one and ants scatter, there's likely an entrance to their colony under the paver as well, which will appear as a small hole into the ground.

Once you find the colony, there are a few things you can do to get rid of it.

Borax and Sugar

Combine equal parts of borax and sugar and place it in a spot nearby. The ants will bring the mixture to their colony, where the other ants will eat it. Borax kills ants, so, in time, this will kill most of the ants in the colony.

Boiling Water

You can (carefully!) pour boiling water where you see the opening to a colony, such as an anthill. However, it's worth keeping in mind that the colonies can often tunnel several feet beneath the surface, so unless the colony is fairly new and shallow, this isn't likely to destroy it.

Commercially Available Ant Bait

These are store-bought ant baits that, like the Borax and sugar mix above, are designed to attract the ants so they bring the concoction back to their colony, where it will be eaten and then kill the rest of the ants.

Remove Their Food Source

Get rid of what they're eating: usually aphids. If they don't have an attractive, easy food source nearby, ants will be less likely to want to make their home in your garden. Check plants regularly for signs of aphids, which will remove a natural food source for ants from your garden (they eat the sticky dew the aphids leave behind, not the aphids themselves, usually). It's also a good idea to not leave pet foods outside, which ants can also be attracted to as an easy, reliable food source.

Garden Ants: Endlessly Busy, Not Always Pests

While garden ants are generally not a problem, and even beneficial, sometimes they can become pests. Certain ants, such as carpenter ants and fire ants, definitely don't deserve a welcome into your garden, and now you know how to take care of any ant pests that decide to invade your garden.

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