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Bug Series: How to Deal with Ants

An unwanted ant colony can be a frustrating nuisance to gardeners, and these persistent colony insects aren’t exactly easy to get rid of. But don’t worry, if you can’t live peacefully with em’, you have options. In order to address the root of the issue, it’s important to understand why your new neighbours have appeared in the first place…

Why They’re Good:

Ants turn and aerate the soil, allowing water and oxygen to reach plant roots. In addition, they eat a wide variety of organic material, recycling nutrients in the soil and providing food for smaller, microscopic organisms that help keep the soil balanced and nutrient rich.

When They’re Bad:

For the most part, ants are more of a nuisance than anything, sharing space with you that you’d rather not share. Ants in a garden bed can be especially frustrating, if it becomes difficult to garden without ants crawling up your arms or pinching your skin in defense. Depending on the species, some ants can cause structural damage to a home (call an exterminator if you suspect a ‘home invasion’), but most species here in Alberta simply nest below the surface of the soil in your garden or yard. Depending on the location of their nest, there is potential for their colony to cause stress to plants above the soil.

Where You’ll Find Them:

Ants can live just about anywhere, but the species we find in Alberta typically love loose, sandy dry soil. They’ll usually nest in low-traffic areas within ‘marching’ distance of nutrients and nesting materials. This means they are most commonly found in old, nutrient-depleted lawns, around the root systems of plants where they can take advantage of natural tunnels, or in your conveniently tilled (loosened) garden beds.

When You’ll See Them:

Ants are dormant during the cold months of the winter, but will become active again in the spring when the weather warms up. They’ll become especially prevalent during the hottest, driest months – usually July, August and September in Alberta.

How They Impact Your Plants:

If there is a large nest built among the roots of a plant, it is possible that the tunnels of the ant nest can disturb or damage root growth, since roots can’t growth through air pockets in the soil. This type of ant disturbance will result in above-ground signs of stress on your plant – but you’ll probably notice the ants first.

Ants like sugary meals, so in many cases, ants will crawl onto plants to eat natural nectar and dew byproducts – this is especially common on peony buds and other nectary-plants, and in these cases, they cause no harm! They’re simply around for a snack, and won’t harm your plants.

However, ants also like to eat the ‘honeydew’ left behind by aphids that are feeding on a plant – they’ll even ‘farm’ the aphids by carrying them to the new growth on the plant so the aphids have a fresh source of food, and the ants get more honeydew in return. Though they likely aren’t damaging your plants directly, ants on your plants could also mean there are aphids around… and if you look close, you should be able to spot them.

Identifying Your Ant Problem

Ants are pretty obvious – if you see them congregating in any area, you can assume they are nesting nearby. Look for small mounds of loose earth, or tiny ‘entry holes’ where the ants can enter their tunnel system. Disturb the surrounding earth and watch to see if the ants swarm – if so, you’ve found the nest.

How to Deal With Ants:

If you’ve got an ant problem, consider what may have attracted them to your yard? Ants are a great indicator for gardeners – since they benefit from bugs like aphids, and they prefer depleted soils, their presence could be an indicator of another problem that should be remedied, especially if they are nesting in your yard. You can work on eradicating your ant problem, but they’ll be back again if the root of the cause isn’t addressed as well. Consider things you can do like fertilizing, regular watering, and companion-planting to help your plants and soil stay super healthy, bug resistant and self-sufficient. You can even use Nematodes (read below) as an organic, simple and proactive way to keep ants away for the season. With all of that said, it should be noted that ants are a very normal part of a healthy ecosystem as well. So if they’re simply around in low to moderate numbers, but not nesting or causing much inconvenience, then there should be no cause for concern.

Water & Disturbance: Ants prefer dry soil to begin with (it’s less compact), but running water can also disrupt them by picking them up and washing them away (which must be inconvenient, to say the least). Ants don’t like to nest where there are hazards and disturbances, so by flooding their nest a few days in a row, or turning the soil with a shovel, you can create an unwelcome environment that is likely to chase them away. If they move their nest only a few feet, simply disturb the nest again. Ants can require persistence, so you may have to repeat the process a few times as they move, but keep at them!

Diatomaceous Earth: This powder is made from fossilized remains of diatoms (containing silica). It’s completely organic and food grade, 100% safe for edibles, pets and children, which makes it perfect for vegetable gardens and family backyards. Just take care not to inhale the dust when you apply (you don’t want silica in your lungs!). D.E. causes micro-abrasions in the wax layering on an insects body, which causes water loss, leading to fatal dehydration. To apply, just layer the powder along the soil, on your plants, and any other horizontal areas where the ants may be travelling. The powder must be visible to be working, so reapply after rain or heavy wind.

Beneficial Nematodes: This is one of our favourite remedies, because it is completely organic and doesn’t harm other beneficial bugs (such as ladybugs and earth worms). Nematodes are microscopic worms that will feed on harmful bugs, deterring them from the surrounding environment. Nematodes are found in thousands of different varieties so you’ll want to get the specific type that feeds on ants. This remedy is most effective as a proactive measure (spray on your garden or lawn in the springtime to keep pests away), but may be effective with multiple applications to an established ant colony (depending on the strength of the colony).

Ant Poisons or Ant Traps: We suggest this option to people as a last resort, since the use of poisons can damage surrounding organic material and pose a hazard to pets, children, and even adults. Use these options with caution if no other remedy seems to be chasing your ants away! Apply AntOut Bait Gel to ant trails, where travelling ants will feed on it and carry it back to the nest for the queen, or these small, Ant Trap tins, which will attract, trap and poison travelling ants (depleting the colony). OneShot Spray, another option, will also poison ants on contact – simply spray along ant trails and nest entrances.

What About Other Bugs?

Check out our full bug series here, and follow us on Facebook to get notified as we release new articles in the series!

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Andrea Heembrock
Andrea works as Anything Grows Head of Marketing and Team Builder, and like everyone else at the store, she loves plants! Though she has many years of experience with plants, she gains a great deal of knowledge from her husband, Ty, who has been in the gardening industry for over two decades.