There are probably hundreds of species of ants living in or near your home landscape. While some situations, such as ant colonies in the lawn, fire ants any place and carpenter ants in trees or in the house, are notable and notorious as major problems, most ants are either harmless or are actually important beneficial insect allies. These ordinary "backyard ants" are inconspicuous most of the time as they go about their business in the soil.
It is when they swarm in the spring that homeowners become aware of ordinary ants. The roiling patches of tiny bodies spread over the sidewalk or on patios and walls, suggest that a major invasion is underway and that some sort of action should be taken. At this time it is important to distinguish between harmful pests such as fire ants, carpenter ants and termites and the ordinary ants that are a natural and helpful part of your backyard ecosystem.
Ants may be black, brown, or reddish and are 1/16 to 1 inch long. They have elbowed antennae and three pairs of jointed legs attached to their thorax, or "chest." Only males and queens have wings.
The most distinctive structural feature of ants is their thin waist, called a pedicel, which connects their thorax to their abdomen (the large bulbous “tail”). The distinction between the two main groups of ants is that red ants have a single joint in their waist and stinging ants have a two-jointed waist and a stinger at the end of their abdomen.
Ants are social--like wasps and bees to whom they are related. They live in large cooperative colonies composed of two or more generations. The adults are divided into castes, specialized groups that perform certain tasks. Members of the reproductive castes are the queens and males, and those of the nonreproductive castes are the workers and, sometimes, soldiers.
Ant Problems Are Hard To Define
An “ant problem” is hard to define, because a healthy home landscape has lots of ants busy doing all kinds of good. They are efficient scavengers of pest insect eggs, small animal carcasses and other natural decaying debris in and on the soil. Most of the time they go about their business out of the site and awareness of homeowners. Worker ants forage for food over a wide area. Some ant species feed on young succulent vegetables, while others eat almost anything, including seeds, buds and flowers.
The most obvious sign of ants is their nest mounds. These mounds occur in lawns and gardens, and extensive underground excavations can eventually undermine pavement. Commonly, problems involving ordinary backyard ants are usually related to their being suddenly obvious, or in the wrong place. When nests become overcrowded and overflow, residents gather to move to a new area. These swarms are a nuisance and an eyesore. Also, when certain types of ants discover honeydew that aphids produce while feeding on plants, they rally to the site to enjoy the sweet treat. While they do not harm the plants, they mar its appearance and the aphid pests they protect proceed with their destruction.
If you need information about how to deal with ants that are in your view causing you a problem, go to Dealing With Ant Problems Outdoors. Otherwise, let them do their thing; it is good for the health of your entire landscape.