Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Season of Bad Advice, Ants

Even if I were shut in a cave with no access to the outside world except via television commercials I would know it was Spring.  The Lawn Care commercials are popping up everywhere and the Gardening commercials are starting to bud out and lets not forget the Weedy Pest Control Commercials that crowd out the Lawn of Rational Thought About Insects all summer long (Whew, I had to work to keep that metaphor going).

Lately I've noticed one particularly egregious commercial advertising what good advice could be found at a Big Box Store (you know the one, the Blue one).  A couple comes in with a jar of ants and asks for advice.  The clerk (who probably has a high school diploma and does this job between modeling stints while waiting for her big break) identifies the ants by color (really?) as "Wood Ants" and suggests a pesticide (the bag reads Grub Control so I'm not even sure it would work on ants).

There are ants, Carpenter Ants, that will nest in the wooden walls of houses and I have no problem with homeowners wanting to get rid of them but ants in the garden are NOT HARMFUL (ok, unless they are Fire Ants in which case you need to avoid the nests because they are so aggressive but I live in New England so no Fire Ants here!  One of the few gardening perks of this region).

Most garden ants are Beneficial Insects.  They build elaborate underground nests and tunnel systems.  This aerates and loosens the soil.  As gardeners we know that a loose soil allows better water penetration, makes it easier for roots to expand and allows air into the root zone of plants.  We all know not to step on garden soil.  Turns out that there is an inverse relationship between concentration of ants and soil compaction - less ants means more compacted soil.  Starting to be convinced?

Benefit number 2:  some ant species are carnivorous.  That means natural pest control.  Ants will eat other insects including caterpillars and the eggs of some insect species.  Ok.  So this is not true of all species.  Yes, some species are associated with aphids.  I guess whether ants are a plus or a minus when it comes to pest control depends on the species.  Call it a wash.

Benefit number 3:  Interactions with plants.  Native plants sometimes work with ants to get their seeds planted.  (This is cool)  The seeds have a added layer of ant food so the ants will carry it into their nests.  The ants get the food and leave the rest of the seed where it is, protected from seed eaters, "planted" in a nice stable environment just right for germination. 

So really the best benefit from ants is to the soil but the soil is the foundation of the good garden.  Good soil equals healthy plants equals a nice place to garden.  Bad soil and you are not going to have much success without more work on the Gardeners part.

Whew.  A whole rant about ants.  And that's only part of the commercial.  With that much bad advice in the first 15 seconds why should I take ANY advice from them?  [Silence]

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