An ant-a-social insect

Aphids on a lupin stem
Some of the lupins in this border have been ruined by aphids

I was listening to a local radio gardening show the other day and a caller was concerned about the proliferation of ants in her garden. Apparently, she had thousands of the industrious little creatures running up and down and underneath a number of plants in her borders.

She wondered why they were behaving like that, and whether this activity was in some way damaging to the plant. I was interested to hear the reply, and yet still a question remained in my head afterwards, which I will come on to.

According to the expert, the recent warm weather has resulted in a proliferation of aphids, which for the ants in your garden is like offering them a free pass to an all-you-can-eat buffet. Now, it’s not because ants eat aphids that you find them on your plants together. Rather, it’s because the ants ‘farm’ the aphids in a relationship that is mutually beneficial.

As my dad explains in his column from 4th August 1979, when aphids feed on your plants, they secrete a sweet, sticky substance called honeydew for which the ants go crazy (if only I could find an insect to secrete Prosecco. My supermarket bill would plummet).

Because of the ready supply of honeydew, they will go to some lengths to ensure the aphids continue to thrive. But aphids aren’t stupid, and don’t give away their delicious product for nothing. Oh no, they expect payback for their endeavours. And like bouncers outside a nightclub on a Saturday night, the ants will see off any invaders with malicious intent on their minds. So watch out all you ladybirds and lacewings daring to approach any aphids under the watch of a colony of ants.

Aphids are also prone to a fatal fungal infection, so ants preserve the health of their ‘herd’ by removing unhealthy, dead or dying aphids from the colony to avoid the rest becoming infected. Aphids in return are perfectly docile in the hands of their protectors, allowing themselves to be lifted and moved around, also also letting themselves be ‘milked’ for their honeydew by having their abdomens stroked by the ants.

As the expert on the radio explained, the ants in themselves are not a threat to the plants. But what I was then left wondering was how to get rid of aphids? We all know they are a pest, and can have a seriously detrimental effect on your greenery if left to their own devices.

I have not found many recommendations for using pesticides, not just for the fact they can kill other, non-harmful insects, but they also pollute the earth and air around the plants they are used upon.

Possibly, the best way is to find the ant nest and get rid of it. You can use poisonous ant bait, which they then carry back to the nest and the poor unsuspecting population feed upon it and wipe themselves out. Or a non toxic method is to wrap your plant in sticky film or netting to catch the ants, leaving the aphids unprotected. Then you can introduce aphid-feeding insects, like the aforementioned ladybirds and lacewings. To get the quantity you need, you may have to buy them in bulk, and larvae of the insects are commercially available and easy to find through Google.

Another non-toxic method is to spray the plant with a fairly strong jet of water. You have to be vigilant, though, and probably will have to do it a few times before all the insects have moved on. Of course, this means that you risk damaging your plants, and also that you just shift the problem on to another part of the garden.

When I was growing up, the usual way of destroying an ant nest was to pour boiling water on it. It does seem rather brutal, but at least they died instantly. I can remember one occasion when I was playing Cowboys and Indians and was dressed up in a long skirt. I got ‘shot’ and dramatically ‘died’ on a little hillock in the garden. Within seconds I was miraculously resurrected by the sensation of hundreds of little ant mouths biting my legs. Subsequently, if ever I came across a nest, I’d take gleeful revenge with the aid of the kettle. I’m sure my parents didn’t mind the resulting network of brown patches scattered across the lawn.

Read more at Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 2nd August and the Gazette & Herald on 31st July 2019

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