What Good Are Ants?

4 Reasons We Can't Live Without Ants

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 may not be a big fan of ants. And if you live in an area where red imported fire ants are common, you may despise them. Unfortunately, the ants you tend to notice are those causing you trouble, so you might fail to recognize the many virtues of these remarkable insects. What good are ants? Entomologists and ecologists make the argument 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 individual 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 all up to no good, we would be in big trouble, wouldn't we?

4 Reasons We Need Ants in the World

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

1. Ants aerate the soil and improve soil drainage

Earthworms get all the credit, but ants actually 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 both air and water circulation in the soil.

2. Ants improve soil chemistry

Ants store large amounts of food in and near their nest sites, which adds a lot of 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.

3. Ants 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.

4. Ants prey on pests

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



  • Encyclopedia of Entomology, 2nd edition, edited by John L. Capinera.
  • What good are ants? Antblog, Chicago Field Museum website. Accessed online September 28, 2014.
  • Red Imported Fire Ants – Beneficials in the Garden, Texas A&M Extension Service.  Accessed online September 28, 2014.
  • Ants have big impact on the environment as 'ecosystem engineers,' ScienceDaily, February 4, 2011. Accessed online September 28, 2014.
  • The Effect of Ants on Soil Properties and Processes, Jan Frouz and Veronika Jilkova, Myrmecology News 11, July 25, 2008. Accessed online September 28, 2014.