Gardening For Ants? Yes, You Can!

This is an idea that is probably well ahead of its time, but after writing about how you can plant a garden to encourage bees last week, I decided to figure out if you can plant a garden to encourage ants. I think the answer is, “Yes!” and if you are interested in ants, you’ve probably already been doing some of these things.

What do you need to provide to encourage ants in the garden? The same things you would provide for butterflies or bees:  food, water and shelter.

1. Plants with extrafloral nectaries provide food and water for ants

Bees collect pollen and nectar from flowers, which is why they are great pollinators. Ants also have relationships with plants, but it often much more subtle. Many plants have nectaries, which are glands that produce sweet fluid fluids, outside of those that reside in the flowers. These nectaries, called extrafloral nectaries or EFN’s, are often used almost exclusively by ants. They supply both water and nutrients.

You are probably already familiar with one well-known example of extrafloral nectaries in the popular landscape plant, the peony. Ever see ants crawling all over peony buds right before the blossom opens?

Peonies have very small extrafloral nectaries along the outside edges of the flat, leaf-like scales of the flower buds. The nectaries provide a mixture of sugars, water and amino acids that attracts hordes of ants. In exchange the ants chase off or eat herbivores that might attack the bud. They also protect the peony “fruit.”

Sunflowers are another example. They have big showy flowers that attract bees.

If you look on the stems, however, you are likely to find ants. The ants are visiting extrafloral nectaries for food. (see another post about ants on sunflowers)

Over 70 different families, from buttercups to violets have extrafloral nectaries. The nectaries may be dripping nectar during definite seasons of the plants’ life cycle, for example for a week or so while the plant is blossoming, or may be available year round.

Here in the Southwest, many cacti have extrafloral nectaries.

It is thought that ants provide various services in exchange for the free meal. (For more information, try these posts about other plants with nectaries:   red bird of paradise, vetch, spurges)

2. Providing food- aphids or scale insects

Now you’ll think I’ve gone over the deep end, but if you are serious about gardening for ants you might want to provide some plants that are hosts to aphids or scale insects.

Leaving a few weeds that are prone to aphids doesn’t necessarily mean your garden will be infested, because some aphids are specific to only one or a few plants. An example is the thistle aphid, Brachycaudus cardui.

Ants definitely benefit from the honeydew the aphids secrete, as do a number of other insects and even birds. You may also benefit, because it is easy to spend hours studying the complex relationships involved.

3. Providing shelter for ants

Can you provide shelter for ants? It might be more simple than you realize. You just need to have a few of these:

Well, maybe not so artistically arranged.

A few flat rocks strewn about your garden are likely to provide a valuable resource for ants. In the cooler parts of the year, ants use rocks that are warmed by the sun as incubators for the larvae. In fact, these particular rocks have a colony of rover ants under them doing just that this week.

4. Get to know your local ants

One of the best ways to develop an ant-friendly garden is to find out what species are found in your area and what their requirements are. Find out which species are keystone species important to your local ecology and which are introduced pests that should be discouraged. You are likely to be a pioneer, so keep records and share what you find out.

Looking back, it seems like gardening for ants could be a real possibility. In fact, if you know of a publisher who might be interested, I would be willing to write up a guide. I can guarantee it would be one of a kind 🙂

Now, you may ask, “Why on earth would you want to encourage ants?”  More about that next…

11 Replies to “Gardening For Ants? Yes, You Can!”

  1. Now, I have posted a link of your “Gardening For Ants” in the German “Ameisenforum” – it was just too nice remembering what warmth and spring will bring back to us here.
    Apart from that, the Camponotus barbaricus are still dormant, fairing well – I am waiting for them to “awaken” properly the beginning of March. Apart from that, don´t forget: Thankyou and do keep that good work going, okay?

    Yours, Charles.

  2. Great post! I get a lot of ants on my peonies just before they bud. Also, last year ants were living on a red-twig dogwood I have and they were “farming” the aphids- at least that’s what it looked like. Unfortunately, some deer visited our yard and ate the tips off of the dogwood- no more aphids, no more ants!

  3. Some of the following won’t work so well in a desert region, but more generally in North America, areas of unmowed herbaceous vegetation (mow down once or twice a year to control woody plant invasion), accumulated leaf litter, logs and boards can also provide cover for ants. And if you live in a climate warm enough for twig nesting species, note that some plants are better than others, because of their hollow or pithy twigs. Finally, whereever they grow, various species of oaks are havens for a host of insect species, including many ants that frequently forage and / or live in them.

  4. Charles,

    Thank you for passing my link on to Ameisenforum. Maybe some of the members will have ideas to add.
    Nice to hear from you.

  5. Hi Roberta,
    Thanks for the great post on gardening for ants. In my northeastern US garden, I also grow native plants that have seeds with fatty appendages called elaiosomes that attract ants. The ants carry the seeds to their nest, remove the elaiosomes to feed to larvae, and then deposit the unharmed seed in a waste area of the nest. The ants get food, and the seeds get a better chance of germinating. It’s fun to watch the steady trails of ants carrying seeds. Plants that have seeds with elaiosomes include wild bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla), and trilliums (Trillium spp).

  6. Edna,

    Thank you for the great reminder. I completely forgot about seeds with elaiosomes (slapping side of head). I’ll have to see what plants have potential here as well. We have so many seed harvesting ants in the desert, I’m sure there are some interesting ones.

  7. I’m so delighted to find your blog. I’m always speaking about ants as an organic gardener’s best friend. both in terms of aerating the soil and in terms of pollination. Last year at one point I had a photo on my own blog of the ants cleaning the scale off my citrus (although I just use a point & shoot canon–your photos are awesome!)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.