Most of us don’t think about ants very often unless they’re marching across our kitchen counter (or up our leg). That anonymity isn’t their fault, it’s ours. Ants play major roles in ecoystems, and their biomass in prairies can rival that of bison, so if we’re not paying them sufficient attention, that’s on us.
I took the two ant photos in this post at the Niobrara Valley Preserve back in June of this year. As is usually the case, I spotted the ants only because they happened to be crawling around on some flowers I was looking at. Ants are often spotted on flowers, especially those that have easily accessible nectar that helps satisfies ants’ attraction to sweets. While they don’t usually do much good as pollinators, ants might provide some protective services for plants by helping to keep herbivores away.
Ants spend most of their time underground, of course, where it’s easy for us to forget about them. When they’re not in their tunnels, they still aren’t all that visible unless we’re looking for them. Regardless, they are major predators in prairies, collaborating with each other to take down prey much larger than they are. In addition, ants are scavengers, major forces in nutrient cycling, and important seed dispersal agents for some plant species. Ants can also steal food and workers from each others’ colonies, “herd” aphids and harvest their honeydew and meat, and are themselves an important food source for other animals. We should probably stop ignoring them.
Most prairies probably have around 30 species of ants living in them, which is more local diversity than is found in grassland nesting birds, which we pay infinitely more attention to. In addition, if we lost all our grassland birds tomorrow, it would be sad, but I’m pretty sure it would have much less impact on prairie ecosystems than if we lost our ants.
Let’s try to keep them both around, shall we?
Here are some previous posts I’ve written about ants if you feel like reading a little more about them:
I found out something interesting about ants when I moved to San Jose, California. When I watered my garden the ants would evacuate. This had never happened in northern Illinois. I came to the (unscientific) conclusion that ants in warmer climates build their nests closer to the surface than ants in colder climates. Anybody know for sure?
Pat’s evacuating ants are an invasive species from South America, Linepithema humile a.k.a. Argentine ant, which makes no permanent nests, and resides semi-nomadically under cover objects such as leaf litter, boards, flat rocks, etc.
The ants in Chris’s pictures are a classic grassland ant known as the thatching ant, or Formica obscuripes.
(Formica has no relation to counter tops. It is the classical Latin word for ant, still extant unchanged in Italian, and occurring slightly modified but still recognizable in related languages, e.g., formiga, hormiga, fourmi, furnica, etc.)
Thanks, James! That was forty years ago. It’s nice to finally have an explanation of what was going on.
This is a post that would make E.O. Wilson proud.
I have been thinking about ants in relation to sedges. The tussock forming sedges grow on mounds created by ants. Creative restorationist Tom Vanderpoel created mounds into which sedges were planted. This mimicked the ant mounds and allowed sedges that were otherwise failing to establish. However, I must wonder how long these sedges would last if there partner ants do not begin occupying the mounds. This has led me to contemplate how ants could be established along with the sedges. However, I have not gotten beyond the stage of contemplation on the matter. Maybe just looking for areas with potential were the ants are already present will be where efforts should be focused at the moment.