What Good Are Ants?

4 Reasons We Can't Live Without Them

Ants working together to capture their prey.
Ants working together to capture their prey. Getty Images/Moment Open/Adegsm

If you're battling sugar ants in your kitchen or carpenter ants in your walls, you might not be a big fan of ants. And if you live in an area where stinging, imported red fire ants are common, you might despise them. Unfortunately, the ants you notice are usually those causing you trouble, so you might not recognize the virtues of these remarkable insects. What good are ants? Entomologists and ecologists argue that we literally can't live without ants.

Ants live in terrestrial habitats throughout the world, and scientists have described and named over 12,000 species in the family Formicidae. Some scientists estimate that another 12,000 species have yet to be discovered. A single ant colony can consist of over 20 million ants. They outnumber humans by 1.5 million to one, and the biomass of all the ants on Earth is roughly equal to the biomass of all the people on the planet. If all these ants were up to no good, we'd be in big trouble.

4 Reasons We Need Them

Ants are often described as ecosystem engineers because they perform many vital ecological services. Consider these four reasons we can't live without ants:

Aerate the Soil and Improve Drainage

Earthworms get all the credit, but ants do a better job at improving soil structure than worms do. As ants build nests and construct tunnels in the ground, they improve the soil significantly. They redistribute nutrients as they move soil particles from place to place, and the voids created by their tunnels improve air and water circulation in the soil.

Improve Soil Chemistry

Ants store large amounts of food in and near their nest sites, which adds organic matter to the soil. They also excrete waste and leave food scraps behind, all of which changes the soil's chemistry—usually for the better. Soil impacted by ant activity is usually closer to a neutral pH and richer in nitrogen and phosphorus.

Disperse Seeds

Ants provide an invaluable service to plants by transporting their seeds to safer, more nutrient-rich habitats. Ants usually carry seeds to their nests, where some seeds will take root in the fertile soil. The seeds carted off by ants are also better protected from seed-eating animals and less likely to succumb to drought. Myrmecochory, the dispersal of seeds by ants, is particularly useful to plants in tough or competitive environments, such as arid deserts or habitats with frequent fires.

Prey on Pests

Ants are just looking for tasty, nutritious meals and not choosing their prey based on its status as a pest. But many of the critters that ants eat are critters we'd prefer weren't around in large numbers. Ants will munch on creatures ranging from ticks to termites if the opportunity arises and will even gang up on larger arthropods, such as scorpions or stinkbugs. Those pesky fire ants are particularly good at pest control in farm fields.

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