By Ranger Steve Mueller
Ant stories abound. Some are good and then there are others. I hope children still watch ants carrying sand grains and sticks as they tend to their house keeping. It was always interesting to watch ants march one by one in a long row carrying food bits to the nest while others walked in the opposite direction to a food source that an ant found and trail marked.
The ant finding a food source laid a trail of pheromones for ants to follow and a great chain of ants began work. I’ve watched them walking over cement following an invisible trail. I rubbed a finger across the trail about three inches wide. It removed the trail scent. On both sides of the rub, the ants came to a stop and did not know where to go. They piled in mass about three inches apart.
After I watched and waited for about 30 minutes, an ant found a way to reconnect their road. The new trail was about three feet long instead of three inches. It made a big loop like a bypass we might encounter when a road is closed for repair. One would think they would have found a short route but they did not. I had read about pheromone marked trails and wanted to verify it. Science requires observation that is repeatable with verifiable physical evidence. I do not need to personally conduct every science experiment to accept it but some are great learning experiences. When food is depleted, the ants cease placing pheromone drops on the trail. It evaporates and the trail is abandoned.
It was sad for a beetle when a group of ants discovered it for a meal. I was tempted to save the beetle by shooing ants and moving the beetle to safety. Instead, I allowed the ants to continue their predatory role. The beetle fought for its life as long as it could but the ants chewed off its legs. Once the beetle could not move, ants proceeded to kill it for a hearty meal. I suppose it is like humans fishing, hunting birds, mammals, or slaughtering cows and pigs for our sustenance.
Our daughters were raised to respect life and to avoid causing needless or cruel harm or death. When Jenny Jo was in second grade, she told her teacher that kids were stepping on ants and killing them in the playground. The teacher acknowledged but did nothing until she realized how traumatic it was to Jenny Jo and decided to stop the students from needlessly killing ants going about their daily work. It was new experience for the teacher to encounter someone valuing ant lives.
We each raise our children with different values regarding a “Reverence for Life.” There are times when it is appropriate to kill insects and times when we should not. I have written about the importance of insects as pollinators, predators of other insects, and their importance for maintaining healthy ecosystems. Many kinds of butterfly caterpillars require ants for protection in order to survive to the winged adult form. The Endangered Karner Blue butterfly in our region is one example. In Karner Blue habitat one will find large ant mounds and without the ants, their survival would be greatly reduced.
Preventing ants from causing houses to collapse is important. Carpenter ants found our home and began hollowing support beams. That was unacceptable and we hired a treatment company to save the house.
Most insect activity provides direct or indirect benefit for society. We should make intelligent decisions to live with most insects. They do not know the difference between carrying food they found, a hapless beetle, or beams in a house. We can selectively control problem ants to protect our homes. Value ant roles in nature niches and support life when reasonable. Spend time outdoors with family members to discover the biodiversity of life sharing our yards and encourage a reverence for life.
Few wildlife are harmful to us or property so I suggest we do not to use excessive control, pesticides, or herbicides that kill the approximate 99 percent that are beneficial. Selectively target the 1 percent causing damage.
Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at firstname.lastname@example.org – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.