• Post Reply Bookmark Topic Watch Topic
  • New Topic
permaculture forums growies critters building homesteading energy monies kitchen purity ungarbage community wilderness fiber arts art permaculture artisans regional education skip experiences global resources cider press projects digital market permies.com pie forums private forums all forums
this forum made possible by our volunteer staff, including ...
master stewards:
  • Anne Miller
  • Pearl Sutton
  • r ranson
stewards:
  • Leigh Tate
  • paul wheaton
  • Nicole Alderman
master gardeners:
  • Carla Burke
  • Beau Davidson
  • Jay Angler
  • John F Dean
  • Nancy Reading
gardeners:
  • thomas rubino
  • Casie Becker
  • Mike Barkley

Are ants beneficial or detrimental?

 
pollinator
Posts: 240
Location: Michigan - Zone 6a
64
hugelkultur trees urban books ungarbage
  • Likes 4
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
    Number of slices to send:
    Optional 'thank-you' note:
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Hello! I have some hugel-like barrels, full of logs, woodchips, food scraps, and whatever else compostable I could find.

Any plant I have stuck in them has grown well so far, and last year the one barrel had a constant stream of ants walking across the top of the soil in the barrel, from one end of the barrel to the other.
This year, that same barrel has more ants than ever.

Should I be worried about too many ants causing issues? They don't seem to be attacking the cucumber I planted in there, and whenever I sprinkle a bit of dehydrated and powdered food scraps on top, they start stealing bits of it and bringing it down further into the soil - which seems like it would be helpful for adding more nutrients to the lower portions of the barrel, unless they are eating everything they take.

(they have also been stealing bits of perlite, which I doubt they are eating but it is fun to watch an ant carrying a piece of perlite that is more than twice its size)
 
Posts: 59
22
fungi foraging food preservation cooking building
  • Likes 7
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
    Number of slices to send:
    Optional 'thank-you' note:
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
In my experience gardening and wwoofing on a small farm, for a combined total of about 8 years, I've had a lot of ants in various places but never noticed any damage caused by them, personally. I tend to agree with the idea that they deposit a certain amount of good stuff (including their own poop) inside the ground.

Ants farming aphids on crops en masse can be quite a bother, though. But I know that requires both the ants and the aphids to be existing there.
 
gardener
Posts: 2325
Location: Ladakh, Indian Himalayas at 10,500 feet, zone 5
639
trees food preservation solar greening the desert
  • Likes 5
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
    Number of slices to send:
    Optional 'thank-you' note:
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Yeah, whenever I've got an aphid problem (generally only happens in my greenhouse when it's getting too hot), then it's clearly related to the ants. I try to reduce the ants at those times, and it does seem to help reduce the aphids a lot. I think by reducing the ants, the aphid-eating creatures get a chance to move in and eat aphids.

Otherwise when there's no aphid problem, I let the ants be. There are two species where I live, a larger red species that is slow enough moving that I can pick them off, and a much livelier smaller black species that I can't catch. Neither of them bite, so that's easy. It's only the slower red ones that seem to farm aphids, so I leave the black ones alone.
 
master gardener
Posts: 4263
Location: southern Illinois, USA
1387
goat cat dog chicken composting toilet food preservation pig bee solar wood heat homestead
  • Likes 5
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
    Number of slices to send:
    Optional 'thank-you' note:
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
I find ants to be pretty damaging to anything made of wood in my garden.
 
gardener
Posts: 1192
Location: the mountains of western nc
301
forest garden trees foraging chicken food preservation wood heat
  • Likes 11
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
    Number of slices to send:
    Optional 'thank-you' note:
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
there are LOTS of kinds of ants, with a variety of lifestyles. without knowing more about what kind you’re talking about, the answer, as it frequently is in permaculture, is ‘it depends’.
 
master steward
Posts: 9315
Location: USDA Zone 8a
2799
dog hunting food preservation cooking bee greening the desert
  • Likes 6
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
    Number of slices to send:
    Optional 'thank-you' note:
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
I feel ants do have their place in this world. And in permaculture.

One I can think of is that ants aerate the soil.

Ants are easy to run out of the garden.  I use vinegar to discourage the ants in my garden.

You or others might enjoy reading this thread:

https://permies.com/t/37050/role-ants

This thread talks about using DE:

https://permies.com/t/8549/Living-ant-hill
 
Posts: 49
Location: Kentucky, USA
41
writing
  • Likes 9
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
    Number of slices to send:
    Optional 'thank-you' note:
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
As Anne said, there's not enough info to give a good answer, here.
There are over 12,000 SPECIES of ants on this earth.

Whether a particular species of ant is beneficial to your situation depends on a huge variety of details.

Many flowers use ants as pollinators - either primary or secondary.
Many plants encourage ants to explore them so the ants will eat pesky parasites like mealybugs or scales.  
Some ants use your plants for their aphids like we use hills for our sheep - endless grazing that can accidentally kill the plants.

Ants generally aerate the soil, speeding decomposition.
Some ants cultivate fungus in their tunnels, encouraging biodiversity in the soil.
Ants are lunch for many predators, including hummingbirds.

There are ants that eat flower nectar or fruit juice
Ants that eat fungus
ants that eat insects and small mammals and run around as ferocious predators for garden pests.
ants that eat leaves and seeds
ants that eat insect eggs and larvae
ants that eat honeydew produced by aphids and act as protective shepherds.

These are not all the same ants - different ants have different diets, and different roles in the complex ecosystem of your garden.

If your plants aren't dying despite a big ant colony getting established between its roots, it's likely a neutral or beneficial relationship between the cucumber and the ants.

Your main worry will be digging in that hugel-ish pot. They probably wont be happy when you dig up their eggs.
 
Logan Byrd
pollinator
Posts: 240
Location: Michigan - Zone 6a
64
hugelkultur trees urban books ungarbage
  • Likes 5
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
    Number of slices to send:
    Optional 'thank-you' note:
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Thank you everyone for the feedback! I have not seen any aphids in my garden so far (last year and this year), but I will keep an eye out for them.

I have been careful to not dig and disturb them - this year I topped off the barrel with scraps, twigs, and finally a layer of coco coir - and then I dug a tiny hole in that coco coir to direct sow the cucumber seeds. They should have been unaffected, or even had more room to expand!
 
gardener
Posts: 665
Location: 4200 ft elevation, zone 8a desert, high of 118F, lows in teens
411
3
dog duck forest garden fish fungi chicken cooking bee greening the desert
  • Likes 11
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
    Number of slices to send:
    Optional 'thank-you' note:
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
I live in a place with a huge diversity of ants, and ant researchers.  Scientists come to this region to study the ants.

On our garden, there are so many different ant colonies. Like what others have said above, they do all different things.  Some take organic matter down into the soil, like any dried leaf bits.  Others are seed harvesters.  I believe the seed harvesters add a lot to soil phosphorus availability for plants.

We are growing some novel plants here, one is roselle (hibiscus, jamaica). That plant makes a lot of acid. It's not native here, so I found what happened to be very interesting.  The roselle plants attracted lots of wasps and also one specific ant. They appeared to harvest "sour" and maybe sugars off the flowerbuds and calcyces. The ants were so protective of the plants that other than wasps and butterflies, no other bugs were allowed on the plants. The ants also went after my feet when I harvested or watered! So I would have to be moving my feet up and down to pick the calcyces (which were in perfect condition). It was impressive how protective of these plants they were. Very fun to watch. They weren't going to let anything harm those plants!

I also found that some ants loved spilanthes seeds and harvested them at the green stage.  They harvested all the first batches of seed. I still got more than enough. I wondered what they used them for. The plant is quite medicinal, with characteristics similar to echincea.  I use it for similar purposes.  Maybe they did, too?

What I like about this is that it supports what Geoff Lawton talks about - that the novel environments that permaculturist create support local wildlife diversity, rather than harm it.  I have noticed this with insects, pollinators, and birds. Our quite novel ecosystem, with plants from many parts of the world  has been a literal oasis for all sorts of native creatures here in the desert SW.

So that's an aside on the ant topic, but you may also find instances where ants are helping your garden, rather than harming. I've found them quite helpful overall. They do work I don't want to bother with.    What is it that Sepp Holzer says? If you get rid of the pig, you have to do the pigs work...
 
Posts: 55
11
  • Likes 10
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
    Number of slices to send:
    Optional 'thank-you' note:
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Don't forget, ants belong and they do what they do.  In my world the only place they don't belong is inside my house, so that's where I draw the line.

In the garden, however, that is a different story.  Whenever you encounter the ant, you are looking at nature staring you in the face.  They ARE the solution of whatever imbalance there is, mostly the unknown and unseen imbalances that we people are unaware of.

For the most part, I think ants are hugely beneficial.  They are so industrious we should be ashamed of how much work they do compared to our piddly efforts.  They are one of the earth's recyclers and they have been at it a lot longer than all of us.

Most of us westerners have grown up in the false agricultural world of spray and kill to protect our precious commodity, therefore, we tend to view the ant as a pest instead of the clean-up crew they really are and that's the real reason they come into the home.  They have found a food source and are exploiting it.   Ants make us live cleaner lives in order to keep them out of our houses.

Outdoors, they are another story.  This is their environment.  I cannot recall the times I have seen a dried up animal carcass being picked clean to the bone by the ant like a dead bird, or a fish head left behind by another critter, or even dead cows or deer.  So, I think the ant and the aphid do a perfectly choreographed dance, one of those perfectly balanced relationships we find in nature if we are paying attention.  In this respect, you need to control the aphid if you want to control the ant.  Ants are harvesting the waste the aphid exudes from it's body.  The only reason the aphid appears is because they have found weak plants that need to be eliminated, so the issue is not even the aphid.  The root of the problem, (pun intended,) is probably the soil conditions that lead to weak plants that are screaming for help in a frequency, only the aphid can detect; so then the aphid shows up, then the ant...Hmm, what to do?  I think you get the picture.
 
pollinator
Posts: 1076
Location: NW California, 1500-1800ft,
300
2
hugelkultur dog forest garden solar wood heat homestead
  • Likes 2
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
    Number of slices to send:
    Optional 'thank-you' note:
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
I recall Bill Mollison mentions in the BBB that ants can add 50tons/acre (or was it per hectare?) of organic matter to soil per year. This is 2.5x earthworms’ O.M. addition. Ant tunnels greatly improve aeration (they are evolutionarily designed to ventilate the colony when hot and hold heat when cold), and water infiltration.

In my area, ants will be found eating wood, but according to my research that wood was already rotten and wet when they started on it. Carpenter ants and the like are more a symptom of rotten wood than a cause (still something to pay attention to, just no cause for using poison).

I find they tend to become noticeable in the house when we have heavy rains in the spring hunger gap that I suspect drives them above ground.
 
pollinator
Posts: 243
Location: 18° North, 97° West
71
kids trees books
  • Likes 3
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
    Number of slices to send:
    Optional 'thank-you' note:
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
I'm having a busy week, so I'm late in responding, but as others said--it depends on the kind of ant. Here in Mexico we have 5 or 6 leaf cutter species and they can be VERY harmful to the plants they like. They can completely strip the leaves of a tree if in a couple of hours if it's a kind of tree they like.  If they haven't been eating our plants or biting you, they are probably okay.
 
pollinator
Posts: 732
Location: Iron River MI zone 3b
74
hugelkultur fungi foraging chicken cooking medical herbs
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
    Number of slices to send:
    Optional 'thank-you' note:
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
I’m surprised at how many people dont think ants damage their plants. Maybe my ants are different, but so far black ants have killed many plants of mine. Tomatoes, peppers, basil, marigolds and beans. Basically anything I plant in or near their ant hill gets destroyed after a week or two. And unfortunately, they keep spreading and popping up in different spots in the garden.
 
gardener
Posts: 2762
Location: South of Capricorn
1254
dog rabbit urban cooking writing homestead ungarbage
  • Likes 1
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
    Number of slices to send:
    Optional 'thank-you' note:
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Brody, I hear you. I lost a passionfruit that gave me bushels every year to ants. When we get ants here, every bit of green gets stripped, so ants can be a nightmare here.
But there are a gajillion kinds of ants, and they all seem to be after different things, so I think we all have different experiences with ants. The ants that killed my fruit still seem to live in my garden, but now they go after different things. I think ants are a great permaculture tool for teaching observation- I only found out there was a rotten spot on my vine after the ants starting going for it. Maybe if you can find out what they want and give it to them elsewhere (greens to rip up and bring back to their nests? Sweet stuff [the honeypot idea]) you can distract them. I find the same is true with slugs, if I set up a nice pile of decaying leaves in one corner of the yard and only use super dry mulch in my beds, they will start moving to where the eats are better.

I generally try to annoy them into moving when I can-- rake up their nests, dump hot water in to their hills-- and keep on it, because they have much more of a labor force than I do!!!
 
greg mosser
gardener
Posts: 1192
Location: the mountains of western nc
301
forest garden trees foraging chicken food preservation wood heat
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
    Number of slices to send:
    Optional 'thank-you' note:
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
brody, as noted earlier, there are many, many kinds of ants, so ‘black ants’, while that might be what they’re called locally, doesn’t really tell us what species you mean. but many ants do keep plants from growing in the immediate vicinity of the hill, partly because the plants interfere with how they manage the temperature and humidity of the colony. you mention planting ‘in and around’ their hill…that makes me think the colony is relatively large, and in your location, perhaps a Formica species, which, yeah, planting into the colony itself probably won’t have good outcomes. is that the only spot you’ve got for a garden? if there seem to be plenty of the ants around in other places, i wouldn’t personally feel too much remorse if i had to remove a colony if it was in my only growing space. but if you can plant farther away, and it turns out they leave the plants alone then…probably the better option in my eyes.
 
pollinator
Posts: 2463
Location: Canadian Prairies - Zone 3b
624
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
    Number of slices to send:
    Optional 'thank-you' note:
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
We find that ants in a container garden or raised bed will damage the roots and ultimately destroy the plants. If they're in the back 40, though, we leave them alone.
 
gardener
Posts: 2329
Location: Just northwest of Austin, TX
474
2
cat rabbit urban cooking
  • Likes 1
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
    Number of slices to send:
    Optional 'thank-you' note:
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
https://permies.com/t/13415/fireants-pants

There is a lot of discussion in this thread about how to combat them, but if you want the most permaculture technique I've ever seen, look at the post by Dan Allen
 
Brody Ekberg
pollinator
Posts: 732
Location: Iron River MI zone 3b
74
hugelkultur fungi foraging chicken cooking medical herbs
  • Likes 1
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
    Number of slices to send:
    Optional 'thank-you' note:
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator

Tereza Okava wrote:Brody, I hear you. I lost a passionfruit that gave me bushels every year to ants. When we get ants here, every bit of green gets stripped, so ants can be a nightmare here.
But there are a gajillion kinds of ants, and they all seem to be after different things, so I think we all have different experiences with ants. The ants that killed my fruit still seem to live in my garden, but now they go after different things. I think ants are a great permaculture tool for teaching observation- I only found out there was a rotten spot on my vine after the ants starting going for it. Maybe if you can find out what they want and give it to them elsewhere (greens to rip up and bring back to their nests? Sweet stuff [the honeypot idea]) you can distract them. I find the same is true with slugs, if I set up a nice pile of decaying leaves in one corner of the yard and only use super dry mulch in my beds, they will start moving to where the eats are better.

I generally try to annoy them into moving when I can-- rake up their nests, dump hot water in to their hills-- and keep on it, because they have much more of a labor force than I do!!!



You’re right about ants being a learning opportunity. When we moved in we noticed carpenter ants near the house. Didn’t think much of it. Then I heard them chewing on the house one evening and things got serious. After sherlock holmsing for a while, I learned that if you have carpenter ants, you likely have rotten wood. And if you have rotten wood you likely have a water issue. So carpenter ants told us we need a new roof. Unfortunately, even though the message was received and the roof replaced, the ants still feel the need to intrude so we’re constantly battling the little bastards.

You mentioned only using super dry mulch to deter slugs. What happens when it rains? When its dry here we dont have issues (other than me needing to water everything) but as soon as it rains we have loads of tiny little slugs coming from the mulch everywhere. And even just normal weather created a lot of humidity at night and the dew seems to be enough for the slugs to thrive. I dont give them any alternatives though, so maybe I should try that.
 
Tereza Okava
gardener
Posts: 2762
Location: South of Capricorn
1254
dog rabbit urban cooking writing homestead ungarbage
  • Likes 1
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
    Number of slices to send:
    Optional 'thank-you' note:
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
is there anything scarier than signs of carpenter ants or termites in your home? probably not! been there done there with that too... thank goodness it was a rental house and we left it in the rearview mirror!

when it's rainy i need to go hunt the slimy little schmucks at night, and I use no mulch at all. We seem to have crossed from wet into dry season now, so I can start adding some dry mulch back, but I spend half the season with bare ground because it gets so out of control (I grow a lot of leafies, and it's usually rainiest in the fall when my winter greens are just getting started, so I need to minimize damage).  
 
Brody Ekberg
pollinator
Posts: 732
Location: Iron River MI zone 3b
74
hugelkultur fungi foraging chicken cooking medical herbs
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
    Number of slices to send:
    Optional 'thank-you' note:
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator

greg mosser wrote:brody, as noted earlier, there are many, many kinds of ants, so ‘black ants’, while that might be what they’re called locally, doesn’t really tell us what species you mean. but many ants do keep plants from growing in the immediate vicinity of the hill, partly because the plants interfere with how they manage the temperature and humidity of the colony. you mention planting ‘in and around’ their hill…that makes me think the colony is relatively large, and in your location, perhaps a Formica species, which, yeah, planting into the colony itself probably won’t have good outcomes. is that the only spot you’ve got for a garden? if there seem to be plenty of the ants around in other places, i wouldn’t personally feel too much remorse if i had to remove a colony if it was in my only growing space. but if you can plant farther away, and it turns out they leave the plants alone then…probably the better option in my eyes.



I dont know what kind of ants these are. Theres too many species for me to learn them all. They’re bigger than “sugar ants”, smaller than carpenter ants and jet black. They have nests all around the yard and we’re constantly finding new ones popping up. I mostly leave them alone but they just keep multiplying so I might just have to extinguish a bunch of them. If they minded their own business it would be different but they destroy patches of grass, move into the garden beds and ruin plants. And not just ruin plants, they appear to ruin soil as well. Whats left after they move in is dry, pale, sandy fluff. I really wish the chickens would help but they seem pretty disinterested in ants.
 
Brody Ekberg
pollinator
Posts: 732
Location: Iron River MI zone 3b
74
hugelkultur fungi foraging chicken cooking medical herbs
  • Likes 1
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
    Number of slices to send:
    Optional 'thank-you' note:
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator

Tereza Okava wrote:is there anything scarier than signs of carpenter ants or termites in your home? probably not! been there done there with that too... thank goodness it was a rental house and we left it in the rearview mirror!

when it's rainy i need to go hunt the slimy little schmucks at night, and I use no mulch at all. We seem to have crossed from wet into dry season now, so I can start adding some dry mulch back, but I spend half the season with bare ground because it gets so out of control (I grow a lot of leafies, and it's usually rainiest in the fall when my winter greens are just getting started, so I need to minimize damage).  



Yes the carpenter ants in the house is very annoying and stressful. We were watching them try to haul larvae inside the last couple days, so they must either already have a nest inside or have plans to make one. We have some mold investigating and remediation to do soon and might run an ozone generator in the house for a while. Maybe that will kill the mold spores and any ants (and whatever else) thats in the walls.
 
You learn how to close your eyes and tell yourself "this just isn't really happening to me." Tiny ad:
Profitable Permaculture in the Far North with Richard Perkins - Gracie's backyard
https://permies.com/wiki/133872/videos/Profitable-Permaculture-North-Richard-Perkins
reply
    Bookmark Topic Watch Topic
  • New Topic