Photo caption: A legion (hah, get it  – not army, but part thereof!) 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 pooled it in the sink for what chance they get to extract themselves. A few less foolhardy brothers and sisters are supping from the edges.

People don’t know what to make of the teeny-tiny ants that march indoors like school children on spring and summer days (when they should be outside!). They can’t be mistaken for carpenter ants – like the many other species that aren’t carpenter ants, but get killed as if they were as dangerous (carpenter ant infestations are dangerous to your house).  All people think is “ew!” 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 was never my thought. Yes, there were many of them, but I’m curious: why are they here? Answer: I left the maple syrup out on the counter, and they were attracted by 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 a problem in my kitchen. Why should I begrudge them eating what I cannot?

One time they got into a tray of dates that I had left out. Once I picked up the tray, exodus! I tapped it a few times, and even those snacking on the cracks in the date skins (the dates were gooey, leaving a syrupy residue in the tray) pulled themselves away and fled. So I made them a bargain: I took out all the dates, washed them off and put them in the fridge. I left the tray for the ants to clean.

NPR did a special on sugar ants 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 supercolonies that they could not sustain if they were 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.

I have an umbrella plant –  I don’t know what kind – and I’ve had it for a long time. With the onset of spring, I put it out on the deck for its own good. It immediately produced new branches and leaves, and I noticed how the sugar ants laid eggs right at the junction on the underside of the growing terminal leaf, with several “nurses” remaining with the small clutches. They look like they are aphid farming. Yet the plant wasn’t damaged in any way.

But, 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, the attacked part, with the new growth, seems 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.

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Also published on Medium.