Thursday, August 4, 2016

ANTS UP TO NO GOOD

I worked outside this morning from sun up until 10am. Finally it was time to go in for a late breakfast. As I walked towards the back door I realized I was not the only one going in for breakfast. A trail of ants was heading from the potted plant I had just watered, right to the house and in through a small hole in the foundation. Yes, they would definitely find it dry in the wall space of the house. Like it or not many of us have colonies of ants living in our wall spaces.
So one again breakfast was delayed as I swept them all away and hosed down the area. Can I have my breakfast now please?
I have lots of ant stories the biggest and best one being the one from St Louis, which I will save until later because there was more ant news from the garden this morning.

Root aphids

If you have ever noticed small piles of sand and soil around the base of a plant it probably means one thing. The ants are farming root aphids down there. They particularly like several of my native plant species including blackfoot daisies, purple skullcaps and Gulf coast penstemon. The latter is one of their favorites. The sudden wilting and demise of these plants is often the result of root aphids even when ants are not present. They love the dry conditions and the last two months have been just that. Pull out the plant and you will likely find clusters of white root aphids.

Ants have a symbiotic relationship with the aphid. The aphid has a special gland called a trophobiotic organ which stores the honeydew that the ants use for food. So is it just chance that the ants find the aphids? Not on your life. They save eggs over the winter and in the spring carry them to the host plant. They truly are little farmers. And when one plant is dead they can move those aphids to another plant.

For the last couple of weeks I have been watching little piles of chopped mulch appearing around the base of the spider zinnias which were growing in one of my vegetable beds. Every day I hosed the root down hoping to deter both pests, to no avail. The demise of the plant continued. Was it aphids or was it something else. I examined the plant carefully when I pulled it out. One or two root aphids but nothing that would kill a plant. It turns out the ants had been stripping the outer layers of the plant at the soil line resulting in death. I remember this happening last year to the same plants.

Eggplant for dinner last night? Forget that idea. Ants have made holes in the eggplant. They are all over my beautiful eggplant plants, the one plant that has survived the brutal summer and was about to start giving me fruits.

Ants are pretty smart when it comes to farming. One of the greatest examples of this is the leaf cutter ant. Among the hierarchy in the colony, they gather, transport, chop and cultivate fungus on the leaves. They feed this fungus to their young. Each ant in the colony has a specific roll. From cutting the leaves and bringing them to the nest where smaller ants will cut the pieces even smaller  before they a chewed to create a medium for growing the fungus. There are leaf cutter ants in Texas but so far I have not seen them. By all accounts they can strip the leaves from a tree.
We saw an wonderful display of leaf cutters at the Montreal Botanic Garden. There in a giant indoor case the ants were cutting the leaves and moving them along the branches to the nests.

Leaf cutter ants at Montreal Botanic Garden

Chopped leaves ready to be used in the nesting boxes to grow fungus
 And so to the story of the St Louis ants. Occasionally when I would be in the living room I would get a faint whiff of a skunky smell. The room had large windows and double French doors leading out onto a low deck with overhead. Determined to source the smell, that no one else could smell, I got down on my hands and knees and sniffed the carpet. Then I spotted a tiny ant disappearing into a hole in the corner of the door. I went down into the basement ( unfinished) and found the spot directly underneath the door. There is a large beam on top of the poured basement supporting the floor above and insulated along the length of the plate. I pulled back the insulation and a vision of horror met my eyes. A colony of ants all the way along. They had found a nice cozy place to spend the St Louis winters as well as the steamy summers. Of course, as was always the case when something like this happened, and that included the house being struck by lightening,  David was away, so I was the one who had to deal with the spraying and the carnage. Well, I was a homemaker after all!
I won't even get onto the subject of fire ants.

4 comments:

  1. Your post is horrifyingly timely. We are battling an invasion, well, I say we -- but really it is me. Andrew doesn't mind them, not at all. They send me. Outside is fine, indoors...NO. N.O. I am at my wits end.

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  2. We deal with different types of ants all summer long, but no poison spraying here -- just Terro and soap spray. Funny you mention the skunky smell, as the ants I smash are "spicy" smelling. In Chicago my mom had ants that smelled like lemons!

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  3. Ugh! Ants are a persistent presence here too. I've repeatedly discovered them setting up operations in certain agaves and I send them packing with a jet stream of water but regular vigilance is required to keep them at bay. They usually pay us in-home visits during the summer months. So far, there have been just 2 small invasions (reconnaissance missions?) but then summer's no where near over.

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  4. Here in the UK, we've had a really disappointing summer - cold and rainy, not hot and sunny - so it's no surprise that we have had lots of slugs and snails this year. However, we also have ants! Everywhere! It's just not fair. And they all seem to sting.

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