Will Ants Harm My Vegetable Garden?

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Ants are bothersome insects, whether they invade your home or outdoor garden. Although it's troubling to see ants crawling on your prized bell peppers or tomatoes, these small creatures do not cause direct harm to vegetable crops. Ants are farmers: they collect and "plant" insects such as aphids and scale on plants that the aphids eat. Then the aphids or scale excrete a sweet, sticky substance called honeydew---the ants feed on this and the other insects harm your plants.

What is an Ant?

  • Ants belong to the family Formicidae in the order Hymenoptera, which simply refers to the membranous wings of many members. Most ants do not have wings, but like their relatives the bees, wasps and sawflies, they have antennae that are longer than their heads, chewing mouthparts and segmented bodies. They also are social insects, living in colonies and working together to promote their livelihood. Many species of ants exist, each with its own particular habits. Common ants found in the United States include the Argentine ant, big-headed ant, carpenter ant, odorous house ant, acrobat ant pavement ant.

Aphids

  • Ants and aphids live in close natural harmony. In winter, ants protect aphid eggs, and then when the eggs hatch, ants carry them to appropriate host plants the aphids eat. Aphids are sucking insects and can cause a plant to become yellow, stunted and die if you allow them to spread. You can introduce lacewings or ladybugs to eat aphids. In a small area such as a vegetable garden, you can also control aphids by using a soap spray.

Scale Insect

  • Many species of scale insects exist, and ants often rely on their honeydew for sustenance. They are small---up to 1/8 inch long---and are common on houseplants, in greenhouses, and outdoors, where they can attack and kill many types of vegetables and other plants. They go through two phases of life: crawlers and armored. The crawlers wander on a plant, and then attach themselves when they mature into the armored form, with a tough outer shell. You can control crawlers with soap spray, but the armored insects require a treatment with oil pesticide, which smothers them.

Controlling Ants

  • Ants are not the direct problem in a vegetable garden; they can help by aerating the soil and eating the larvae of fleas and flies. If you feel control is needed, eliminate their food sources. In addition to honeydew, they like pet food, garbage, and any other foods they can get to. Flood flowerpots with water to drown ants. Although you can dig up a colony to destroy it, this is hard work: try flooding the nest with boiling or soapy water.

Cautions

  • Boric acid is sometimes used to control ants. However, use it only in dry areas and keep it away from pets and children. If you choose to use a spray pesticide, don't make the mistake of spraying only the ants you can see. You must kill the queen and other residents of their colony. Baits such as ant stakes can be effective because ants take the poison home with them, where it kills members inside the colony. Take care when you use any pesticides and keep them away from children, pets and your food.

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