Ants are social insects in the Hymenoptera order (bees, wasps and ants). Like bees, they live in large nests comprising a queen and many (sterile female) workers. They can be a nuisance in gardens as they sometimes nest in plant pots and compost bins, while some species make ‘ant hills’ in the lawn. Ants may sometimes enter our homes if a source of sugary food is easily available.
However they are never more than a nuisance and will not harm you, your children or your pets.
You might be tempted to get rid of ants in your garden, but bear in mind that ants are an important part of the garden ecosystem, being right at the bottom of the food chain, and are therefore an important source of food for many species, including birds and amphibians. There are more than 30 species of ant in the UK, with several of them found in our gardens.
Types of ant
The most common species of ant in the UK is the black ant, Lasius niger. It nests under pavements, in soil, pots and compost heaps, and at the edges of lawns. It is harmless and possesses no sting.
Another common garden ant is the yellow meadow ant, Lasius flavus. It builds small mounds in lawns and may be mistaken for red ants due to its colouring. Like the black ant, it is completely harmless.
Red ants (in the Myrmica genus) can bite and will cause a mild sting. However they are rarely found in gardens. They largely eat insects but some species have a preference for spiders.
Ants cause very little damage in the garden, although if they build a nest in a plant pot then the rootball of the plant may be compromised and cause wilting of the plant. Ant hills in long grass can be annoying but not harmful to either the lawn or the garden. Ants are known to ‘farm’ aphids for their sweet-tasting honeydew and have been observed trying to disturb aphid predators in order to maintain large numbers of aphids on plants. This can result in plant damage.
What do ants eat?
Ants eat small insects and other invertebrates and their eggs, as well as plant sap, fruit, and aphid honeydew. Some ants are attracted by sugar and may come into your home if there’s an easily available food source.
Do ants sting?
Red ants (Myrmica) can sting, but for most people this is just a minor irritation. And red ants are less common in gardens. Other ants can bite, but rarely puncture the skin. You might feel an ant bite as a sharp pinch, which will stop when you brush the ant off your body.
How to get rid of ants indoors
Some gardeners use sprays, powders and even boiling water to get rid of ants. Remember that ants are part of the garden ecosystem and are a vital source of food for other species, such as birds and amphibians. Sprays and powders contain insecticides which can harm other insects, such as bees, and which also leach into the soil and can harm soil invertebrates such as earthworms.
Here are some kinder, non-toxic methods of deterring ants, without harming them or the environment:
1. Locate the source of infestation
If ants are coming into your home, the most important thing to do is find out why. Try to see where they’re travelling to or coming from, which should alert you to the presence of an available food source – be it an open bag of sugar or jar of jam with the lid not fixed on properly. Once you have found the food source, remove it, and the ants should return outside.
2. Use vinegar to remove ant trails
Teams of ‘scout’ ants leave pheromones to alert other ants to the source of food. Simply sweeping the ants up won’t stop more turning up – you need to remove the pheromone scents left behind. To do this, use a few sprays of white vinegar solution (one part vinegar to three parts water) and wipe with a damp cloth. This should destroy the pheromone trails and stop the ants in their tracks.
3. Deter ants with scented oils
To deter ants from your home, mix strongly scented peppermint or lavender oil with water and spray the mixture on to entry points like windowsills or door frames.
How to get rid of ants outdoors
If ants are nesting in your compost bin or beneath paving stones they are unlikely to be doing any harm, so do consider letting them get on with it. However, if they’re nesting in a plant pot and your plants are suffering, you can move them on by watering the pot regularly. Avoid completely flooding the pot, as this can kill the ants. But regular watering will let them know that the plant pot isn’t the best place to make a nest – as they do best in dry environments – so they will move their eggs elsewhere.