Many people, especially gardeners, only see ants as pests, but they couldn’t be further from the truth. These days I work weekends in a garden centre, and when summer arrived every second customer I encountered wanted a product to kill ants. One person even asked me for the “Agent Orange” of ant insecticides! They were somewhat bemused when I asked “What sort of ants are they, and why do you want to kill them?”
There are more than 1,300 described species of ants in Australia, but only a minority are considered to be pests. Most ant species are beneficial in some way. Ants are extremely important in the environment and are sometimes referred to as ‘ecosystem engineers’. For example, in bushland, ants are vital dispersers of seeds, a mutually beneficial practice known as myrmecochory. Many Australian plants, about 1500 species or so, have evolved to produce seeds with elaiosomes, which are expendable seed parts containing oil, protein, starch, sugar and vitamins. Ants collect the seeds, and carry them off to their nests underground. However, they only eat the elaiosomes and discard the rest of the seed in a ‘rubbish tip’ section of the nest, or hide them under leaf litter outside the nest. The seeds are then sort of planted, safe from predation or fire, where they can germinate safely.
Mind-boggle alert! Some stick insects exploit these ants’ seed-burying behaviour by laying eggs that look like seeds (see below), and even have an expendable fatty part for the ants to feed on. The eggs are collected by ants and taken into their nests where they are safe from predators. When the young stick insects (nymphs) hatch they even look and smell like ants. The nymphs then wander out of the nest, past the unsuspecting ants, and up the nearest gum tree to feed on the leaves.
Anyway back to the ants. Ground-dwelling ants aerate the soil while digging their nests, which allows water to penetrate the soil more effectively. Those ants that make their nests in dead wood aid the decomposition process of that wood. Many ant species are predators or scavengers consuming vast numbers of the eggs, larvae and adults of insects and other invertebrates − either dead or alive. Ants in turn are food for many creatures such as birds, echidnas, reptiles and other invertebrates.
Some common ant species that are predators and scavengers include funnel ants (Aphaenogaster spp.), green tree ants (Oecophylla smaragdina), meat ants (Iridomyrmex spp.) and sugar ants (Camponotus spp. – pictured below). These ants should be encouraged and respected rather than bombed with insecticides.
Where I live in Western Victoria there is really only one ant species to be wary of and that is the Jumping Jack ant (Myrmecia pilosula) pictured below – aka Jack jumper, hopper ant, skipper ant. Jumping Jack ant stings can cause anaphylaxis, a life-threatening condition in some people typified by constriction of the throat and difficulty in breathing. Milder symptoms include swelling and itchiness around the wound. They are extremely aggressive ants by nature and move in a characteristically jerky, jumping manner. Their movement may look a little comical, but there is nothing funny about the sting!
In a future blog post I will be writing about how some butterflies have interesting associations with certain ant species. In some cases the butterflies are totally reliant on the ants for their survival.