Backyard Buddies
Ants

Photo: Jess Cappadonna

Ants

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Wherever you are in Australia, you will definitely have seen this little creature in your garden or even in your house (or honey jar).

Ants live all over Australia in every single kind of environment. That is because there are so many types of ants - over 1,200 known species in Australia and over 15,000 worldwide.

Many kinds of ants love rainforest areas, but ants are also found in the most arid deserts and even underwater.

Ants can live in colonies of up to tens of thousands of individuals, or in smaller nests containing just a few dozen.

Ants work together to modify their environment and provide a large enough food supply to feed a large group. They establish enormous underground worlds, complete with their own complex societies.

The ants you'll see outdoors, and making their way to the pantry, are female worker ants. These females can't reproduce, and instead spend all their time searching for food, bringing it back to the colony and tending to young deep in the nest.

Inside the nest, there are ant larvae and pupae, as well as drones, which are fertile males that don't work. Deep down inside the colony is the queen ant. She is a fertile female that spends most of her time laying eggs.

If you've ever seen a big swarm of flying ants, you've witnessed ant breeding season. Winged males and females find each other in the air and mate.

The male ant dies after breeding, but the female rids herself of her wings and goes off to establish her own colony. At first she does all the work of the colony herself, but as she lays more and more female workers, they take over the work and she concentrates only on laying eggs to grow the colony.

Did you know?

Ants can communicate with each other and solve complex problems. To tell other ants where a food source is, an ant lays a chemical trail for other ants to follow. Ants perceive smells with their bent antennae.

TIP

If ants are coming into your house, you can deter them by wiping a few drops of lavender oil near the bases of your doors, windows or other entry points. This scent will confuse the ants and disrupt their chemical trails so one ant can't tell another where the food source is inside your house.

Wattles Need Ants & Ants Need Wattles

Dwelling high in the branches of many wattles, alongside the birds and bees feasting on fragrant yellow blossom is an unexpected resident – the ant.

Whereas we mostly think of ants as ground dwelling insects, many species of ants prefer the high life. They derive great benefit from their association with wattles, and the wattles do well out of the deal as well.

As ants crawl across the flowers gathering rich pollen, they are pollinating the tree at the same time. And when ants hunt down leaf chewing and sap sucking insects to take home to feed to their larvae, they are ridding the tree of damaging pests.

There's another way in which ants perform a vital role in the survival of wattles. A short thread called an elaiosome anchors wattle seeds into their pods.

This structure is packed full of carbohydrates and protein, making the seed irresistible to the ant. Ants bring the seed back to their nests, chew off the elaiosome and feed it to their larvae. They then dump the seed in their nest or bury it in their refuse pile.

But although the ant has finished with the seed, by dragging it underground, the ant has placed the seed in a perfect environment for germination. Inside the nest, it is dark, safe from predators, moist and naturally fertilized.

Thanks to the services provided by ants, wattles flourish in some of Australia's harshest and most arid environments.

Australia has many different soils, from sand to rock, and every type of soil has its own type of ant. As many as 100 different species, three times more than in other countries, can share one hectare, and only about 25% of these even have a proper name yet.

You may also see an ant carrying a grain of sand to renovate their nest. These sophisticated structures sometimes even have solar-heating. The ants will place a stone on top which will heat up in the sun and keep the nest warm at night. If you want to see your ants' nest, just drop a few biscuit crumbs on the ground, wait for an ant to pick them up and follow it straight back to its nest.

Ant watching in the backyard can be fascinating, but you may not want them to move in with you. The easiest way to avoid ants invading your pantry is to draw clear lines between their territory and yours before the first ant has set foot on your window sill.

If they are coming out of holes and cracks in your building you could also try to block the entrance with some Blu Tack, which works on concrete, brickwork or timber.

 

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