Wait a minute... How did that plant ge
t over there?!
Here's the scenario: It's spring. You're eagerly inspecting your shady native plant areas to find the beautiful early spring wildflowers that have come up. You remember planting some trillium, or bloodroot, in a certain area and want to see if it will return. Success, you find it! But even more exciting....you find more 6 feet away! How did this happen? Thank our friends, the ants.
Aphaenogaster fulva ants and bloodroot (
) seed with attached elaiosome. Urbana, IL.
There are species of woodland ants that co-exist in a mutually beneficial relationship called myrmecochory with certain woodland plants, such as Dutchman's Breeches, Celandine Poppy, Trillium, Bloodroot, Wild Ginger, Trout Lily, Hepatica, Violets, and many more. The seeds of these wildflowers have an oily, nutritious attachment called an elaiosome that attracts ants. Many ant species are omnivorous, or eat both plants and animals. In early spring, animal-sources of food are not plentiful, so many ants depend on the fatty lipid-filled elaiosomes found on woodland wildflower seeds. Ants take these seeds back to their nest, eat the elaiosomes, and discard the hard-coated seed in a waste chamber that can contain dead ants and feces which act as fertilizer for the seed. The ant gets food, while the plant gets its seeds dispersed and planted! The relationship between the plant and ant is amazing when you think about the fact that the size of the seed can't exceed the carrying capacity of the ant's jaws. Also, the colony size of these woodland ant species is generally small (a few hundred workers), which allows them to move their colony around very easily, further encouraging the dispersal of the seeds. The timing of the early seed production also coincides with the emergence of the ants. Nature is amazing!
So what can homeowners do to encourage this interaction? Very simply, minimize use of chemicals in your yard that might negatively impact ant populations. Read
for non-toxic methods of discouraging ants from entering your home. For Illinois ant identification pictures, go to this
Lake Forest College
site. To learn more about ants dispersing seeds, watch this you-tube video (ant skirmishes over seed around the 5-minute mark!)