An ant lives for only about two months. During its lifetime, it accomplishes a great deal as part of a colony that works together for the good of the colony. Each colony has a specific scent, so the ants are aware when an outsider is present. As an ant finds a food source, she leaves a scented chemical trail behind for the other ants to follow. They use landmarks to find their way around, but this chemical “path” enables them to get back to the nest by the shortest route, even in the dark.
Most of us only notice ants if they get into our homes, build anthills in the yard or are on our flower or vegetable plants. Certainly we don’t want ants in the house and need to take appropriate action. Outdoors, my feeling is that if we’re not tripping over the anthills in the yard, they’re not a problem. As with any insect, how you respond will be determined by your tolerance level. If you have ants on your plants, check to see if the ants are guarding aphids, as they will hang out with them in order to access honeydew, the sweet, sticky liquid that aphids secrete. The aphids can be removed with a stream of water, and the ants will be washed off as well.
I hope the next time you see a trail of ants, you make yourself comfortable and watch them for 10 minutes, or however long you can spare. They are remarkable insects and can teach us something about teamwork if we are willing to learn.
Jolene Wallace is the horticulture program educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension in Clinton County. Contact her at 561-7450 or firstname.lastname@example.org.