Insects

Ants – From Warship to Worship (Mexico)


Another buckwheat being chopped down

I started writing this article a few weeks ago as my war against ants started. Luckily, as all things in life change, or rather evolve, so did my thoughts and understanding of my ant problem. Being a true optimist, I did all I could to find opportunities in my problems.

Ants, ants, ants. I talk non-stop about ants. They even invade my dreams!

I have recently planted an exciting and promising variety of foods that seemed to never emerge and I wondered whether they were shy or if I did anything wrong. So, like most old school gardeners would advise you to, I visited my garden at night.

To my horror, armies of ants (giant reds and robust blacks mostly) were chopping the growing jungle I intended to grow. I sat, almost desperate in front of the long lines of soldiers heading home with chunks of my seedlings and newly planted seeds. As my tribute to Margaret Mead, I now officially declare "Never doubt that a small group of committed ants can destroy an entire harvest."

When war is pledged against you, you better defend yourself. So I did. I re-read my favorite quotes from Sun Tzu’s Art of War, spent (too much) time Googling ant problems and marched to the battle field.

The challenge is that the Internet is filled with wonderful ideas, tips and bits of wisdom on how to get rid of ants…. Tips that do not necessarily apply to individual cases. That’s precisely what I love about permaculture — it deals with articulations and dynamics rather than specific recipes. You know, the "it depends" type of answers you often come up with. Well, my little story will definitely illustrate this point.

I therefore browsed through various forums, blogs and how-to sites, and put all this wisdom into practice. After a few weeks of experimentation, mistakes and failures, I can now assure you that either the magic recipes have never been tested before or that my case is so isolated that none of them worked. Here is a list of war strategies I adopted and their results.

As recommended, I attacked their nests with baking soda and vinegar (the chemical reactions apparently kills them). Mission failed. You only get a few casualties as the tunnels are so intricately carved that they won’t let the organic poison penetrate.

I mixed the aggregate of other ants’ nests into theirs so they would move away (or so swears the old lady who sells us sweet bread). Mission failed once again.

I laid cow dung over their nests (like I saw done in Western Africa) hoping they would colonize them and then throw it to my chooks for a protein boost. I probably forgot a major aspect: it wasn’t against ants but termites. Mission failed again!

My local friends even sneaked chemical poison to help my desperate case (they affirm it is only harmful to ants)…. Mission failed and this so-called secret help resulted in an angry farmer, aka me, and more vengeance from the little buggers. Remember, ant colonies are massive and spread way farther than one would think, so pouring a bit of poison over one hole pushed them to spread more and exit from other places.

I sprinkled a bunch of wood ash all over the beds (which didn’t seem to bother them at all) and sprayed a soapy mixture of garlic and chillies (nothing changed and I suspect it actually made my plants more palatable for those spice-loving Mexican beasts). Mission failed once again.

I also poured loads of coffee grinds all over the soil with mild results (caffeine is said to be a great natural insect repellent), blocked the entrance of their nests with rocks to buy me time and manually fought them off my plants. And so the story goes. I kept wasting time, energy and soldiers.

At this point, Bill Mollison would probably tell me that I don’t have an ant problem but a shortage of Myrmecophagidae…. Dear Bill, Mexico won’t let me sneak any anteaters into the country and I can’t even find them on E-bay.

Lacking the ants’ most well-known predator in my tool box, I sent invites to other minor predators — I did all I could to welcome lizards, toads, praying mantises, birds, and spiders. I designed my garden to be as inviting to them as possible. It is now filled with piles of rocks, perches, and inverted clay pots.

I also placed my chook tractor right over their nests to see what happened. Despite moderate results and a good protein binge for my chooks, the ants quickly dug other tunnels and exited my trap.

I must admit this war dilemma caused many a headache, and perhaps a bit of desperation too, but above all it boosted my creativity and my sense of observation, so it’s not all so bad in the end. Plus, it was my original intention in living far from everything that brought me to our ant territory. I chose to live with Nature, to work with her and to build a little world that made a lot of sense to me. Killing ants was definitely not part of my original vision.


Ant piles – a yield we didn’t think of

The only option left was to rethink my reality, permaculturally that is. Despite the few occasional bites and their compulsive leaf-cutting and seed-robbing habits, ants are wonderful allies. If you find the mother nest, you will be blessed with a mound of great compost-like soil as well as tiny gravels that will improve soil drainage. Now that’s a great bonus. They also offer long hours of entertainment; watching them fight other colonies, communicate or carry bulky items is like entering a Nat Geo documentary for a bit. As for their destructive temper, I guess all they want is food. If food it is they want, food they shall have!


Mango peels to keep my ants pacified

I now have opted for a more conscious approach and instead of making them my enemies, I have declared them worthy of my adoration. Everyday, I spread a bit of our food (fruit peels and sugary stuff like raisins for instance) close to their nest or on their way to my garden as my offering. I do it almost ritually just because it’s fun.

I also accepted that a part of my harvest will be shared with them and therefore planted twice as much. They love my new seedlings so much that they left my other crops untouched.

Unlike many, I also welcome all types of weeds, as not only do they assist my other plants but they are a succulent decoy for ants to munch on (and for us!). It is the same with some of the mulch I use. I call them my ant rawhide. Munch on them suckers!

Overall, I call it a multilateral success as peace reigns over our little oasis once again, and they seem to have lost interest in ‘my’ share of the garden.

Just a last reminder for all of us looking for (and giving) online tips and recipes: Each recipe is time-, place- and culture-specific. What works or worked for you might not work for others and vice versa. It’s all about adjustment, creativity and adaptation!

My only recommendation for dealing with ‘my’ ants: Feed them well and have others feed on them… or feed on them yourself, as they are excellent treats (first boiled, then fried with lime, garlic, onions and chillies).

P.S.: As I finish typing this article, there is now an invasion of grasshoppers that I am about to ‘fight’…. I guess I will keep you updated in my next article.


Another citadel to keep pacified

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12 Comments

  1. Enjoyable article. I also have thousands, if not millions of ants in my north Texas lot. I have also tried diluted molasses. Seems to help a little, but there’s a lot of reapplication that needs to be done. I like your approach better. Thank you so much for writing the article.

    On grasshoppers… my chickens aren’t free ranging, thus I have a problem with grasshoppers, too.

    Thanks again,
    Nichole

  2. HI Keveen,

    Great to hear of your experience with the ants. Ants are the worms of dryland / arid areas and they do a great job aerating the soil.

    I’ve got them here and they bite you whilst injecting formic acid and then just for good measure spray the bite surface area with the same acid. You end up with a chemical burn. Nasty stuff. I now accept the odd bite as part of living here. Washing the area with metho/alcohol straight away seems to help a lot.

    What ants don’t like here is humus and good top soil, so that is incentive enough to build top soil. Lots of it! As your top soil improves you may find them going elsewhere.

    I get locusts here too (there was a massive plague up north last year). Like your grasshoppers, they are just asking to be eaten by a population of small birds. The photos showed a lack of small bird housing. Get some dense shrubs going, leave water out for the birds over summer and they’ll hopefully move in. Insect problems are a food source for other creatures.

  3. Love your story! I have many ants & daily visits by small black ants to kitchen -so have to keep v clean!! Now Bees are falling into kitchen!so have to catch them & let them out- must be in roof – im trying to kill kikua grass 500 m sq with carpet off cuts then figure out what to do with my large urban space? the idea is to wood chip it…where can I find ideas & help? Fremantle Western Australia

  4. This is a lovely homage to the (I think) mighty ant and a lesson in cooperation instead of conflict. However, there’s still one member of the ant family I’m having trouble co-existing with: the one that’s been systematically chewing through the timber holding up my house and shed. Does anyone have any ideas about peacefully coexisting with/deterring this particular variety of ant? A representative of an official government environmental protection body recently advised me that there was no ‘warm and fuzzy’ way I could manage the ants (she seemed very amused at my request – I could imagine her nearly falling off her chair with mirth and later on making my phonecall good fodder for conversations round the water cooler), and my own research and other numerous requests from people and groups I rely on for this kind of advice have been equally fruitless. Many thanks in advance for any help anyone’s able to offer.

  5. This approach has worked me for as well. It’s pretty much the same with all territorial creatures: if you drive one off, another is bound to come and replace it because your garden is a niche waiting to be filled. So it becomes a never ending battle. Ants, squirrels, you name it and it is probably territorial.

    I’ve had to explain the principle of planting more than is necessary for human needs by saying: “100% of the solar energy that reaches earth isn’t for direct human use.”

    Monocultures and polycultures differ not just in how many kinds of crops are tended, but also in their uses. Monocultures almost always have, ultimately, a human use. Polycultures meet the needs of the ecosystem as a whole. Humans are at the “top” of the food chain and so our polycultures should reflect that we stand on the shoulders of many.

    It may take a few losing battles to realize this, but as soon as it clicks then designing/maintaining becomes a lot easier.

    PS- I wish I had mangoes to feed the ants :)

  6. great article. i dont have an ant problem but dont get me started on slugs and butterflies…

    for suzy and others interested in combating insects organically goggle paul stamets, he used mushrooms and moulds to completely rid his house from termites. he then proceeded to testing his discoveries on other families of insects and they worked. moreover, his house is now protected for life because the spores he introduced are still in the house and ready to attack any new infestation. his book, mycellium running, describes multiple ways mushrooms can be used to control pests and diseases of all kinds, it is one of the best books i have ever read. inspiring.

  7. Many years ago I made a pact with cutter ants to reveal their importance and stop this war against them! It´s grossly unfair.
    I am speaking from my experience in Brazil,so have to see if it is true in Mexico!

    First we need to understand why they are present in our landscape.

    Ants are janitors and composters, trying to create a more fertile situation by taking out sick or weakend plants ( including plants which were planted in the wrong place or at the wrong time), or piling up organic material in mulch-poor landscapes. I promise our farmers that if they still have ants next year, after heavily mulching, I personally will jump into their St. John´s bonfire!!!

    We have also discovered that ants seem to thrive in more acid situations- we have had huge anthills disappear with the simple addition of limestone to the area and even into the hole.

    But basically, as soon as the system evolves, they just stop being an issue. They will continue present, as janitors, but not be an issue any more….

    In the first year of my project the ants ate basically everything. The anthills were a meter high. The second year, they were at ground level. The third year the ants were bringing in organic material from the neighbor´s yard!

  8. @ Suzi,

    As far as I know, ants will only eat wet, rotting wood. Even the poorly named carpenter ant cannot consume solid, dry wood. They are not eating your house, wood rot fungus is. The real problem is water, find the source of moisture and stop it. The ants will leave when they have finished surgically removing all the damaged cellulose.

  9. I like my much loved friend Masha, garden in Brasil and like she others who wrote here have become fascinated by the ants and have learnt to work together with them and not against them.
    Like Marsha says and your photo shows, they bring in the organic matter; something that the soil without the forest is lacking. They use it to cultivate the mushrooms that they like to eat and as a side effect the soil gains more organic matter. So increasing the organic matter helps as they have to work less to bring back a balance.
    I always use a good amount of organic matter from plants they don’t cut as well as all the rest. If you check, there are always plant species they don’t cut.
    As you mention, they go down deep, so I also plant deep rooted species and plants that open up the soil; sweet potato, mandioca, Brazilian ginseng, flowers like dahlia, gladiolus, lilies etc I don’t harvest everything, but always cut everything and use it as mulch.
    With the soil more aerated and more organic matter the ants move on as they have no more work to do.
    Over the years it has become obvious that the ants work in watershed territories and our gardens are just small fragments of a much larger picture. When the water can no longer permeate the tropical soils because of lack in OG and deep roots, the whole thing implodes and the ants and termites come in to help it breathe. Degraded ecosystems are monitored by them constantly.
    regards, Pete Webb

  10. I’ve had some problems with fire ants and it was very annoying that I couldn’t walk with bare feet in my own garden. I’ve tried to wipe all kitchen surfaces with white vinegar as I’ve read here and it worked, or at least there were less of them inside the house. Anyway, after a while my brother and I have moved their nest further away from my house.

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