If you do a quick search on Google for “sugar ants,” it zones in on how to kill (“get rid of”) them. However, when they first made their appearance in my kitchen in June of 2010, killing them not my thought. Yes, there were many of them, but why are they there? Answer: I left the maple syrup out on the counter, and they were attracted to the sugar in the ring mark from the bottle. Once they ate all the sugar, they marched off to look for something else sugary. No sugar? Not that much of a problem. I don’t consider 10, 15, even 25 ants smaller than a grain of rice to be that problematic in my kitchen. Why should I begrudge them eating what I cannot?
NPR did a special on them in “The Tiny Ant that’s Taking Over the Big City.” The comments for the article are illuminating of this ant’s background and context in the American city. Sugar ants are able to create super colonies that they cannot sustain in the forest. However, for all the preventions and solutions the article included in its sidebar “Keeping Ants Away,” I failed to see a compelling argument why.
As for why I’m so fascinated? Well, I have an umbrella plant – I don’t know what kind – but I’ve had it for a long time. With the onset of the rabbit munching its leaves this spring, I put it out on the deck for its own good. It produced new branches and leaves, and I noticed how the sugar ants laid eggs right at the centre underside of the growing terminal leaf, with several “nurses” remaining with the small clutches. They look like they are aphid farming.
Just when the plant was in reach of the balcony rails, along came my rabbits and ate a few of these terminal leaves and their sisters – annihilating the sugar ant eggs and their nurses in a few quick nibbles. The poor plant had to regroup and send out new terminal buds – to which the ants responded again. What’s more, of the terminal leaves that survived the bunny attack: they seem little worse for wear. Could this be a symbiotic relationship?
In 2007, Mathews et al published a paper titled EFNs Enhance Biological Control of G. molesta (Environmental Entomology 36(2)) about the sugar secreted by peach tree leaves and how, if ants have access to the canopies of the trees, they competitively exclude (or predate upon) oriental fruit moths. They then become a biological pest control agent.
The moral of the story is, though this isn’t the same plant, and it isn’t the same ant, the view of “pest” needs to be more rigorously applied: are those sugar ants doing you any harm? For me, no – they help clean my counter and then they go away. It seems, perhaps, their going about their business is an overall good.
Captioning the photo: A legion of sugar ants committed mass suicide in my bottle of honey. In honour of those that might resurrect – and I can see some of them will – I’m slowly pooling it in the sink for whatever chance they get to extract themselves. Their less foolhardy brothers and sisters are supping from the edges.