They go marching

What’s the big deal about ants?

by Eleanor Spicer Rice

We might not notice them, but ants surround us, occupying nearly every type of habitable nook and cranny across the globe. Right now, ants snuggle up to our homes, lay out their doormats in front of the trees in our yards and snooze under our park benches. Some even nest inside the acorns littering the ground.

We might not notice them, but they’re there, and they shape — literally shape — our world. Look at the colossal trees in your forest and the plants around your lawn. Ants like winnow ants plant the forest understory, ultimately contouring plant distribution that become these giants of trees and animal homes, abounding green life. Other ants help turn soil (more than earthworms in some places), break up decomposing wood and animals, and keep the canopy healthy.

Ants creep across our yards, taking care of business for us in much the same way. They eat termites and chase caterpillars out of our gardens. Even though some people think of ants as the tiny creatures that ruin their picnics, of the nearly 1,000 ant species living in North America fewer than 30 are true pests, and fewer still actually can hurt us.

Most ants spend their time pulling the threads together in the quilt of the natural world. Without these threads, the quilt would fall apart, becoming disconnected pieces of fabric.

In “Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants,” you can meet our most common ants. Odds are you can see these ladies tiptoeing all around you. See how beautiful they are, with their spines and ridges, their colors and proud legs, each feature lending itself to the individual’s task. See their work, how they build the world around us as they move about our lives.

What’s in an ant colony?
Many different types of ants nest in pretty much any type of shelter. While fire ants push up their great earthen mounds for all to see, acrobat ants might have their mail delivered to a tiny piece of bark on a tree limb, and winter ants scurry down inconspicuous holes in the ground to their underworld mansions. While ant nests differ greatly, when you crack one open you’ll most likely find lots of workers, a queen (many species have several queens), and a white pile of eggs and babies.

Most ants carry out the trash and their dead, piling them in their own ant graveyards and dumps, which are called midden piles. Like any good detective, you can learn many things from going through an ant’s trash. If you find a midden pile, you can get a good idea of what the ants have been eating and whether or not they are sick or at war with other ants. You’ll probably discover bits of seeds and insect-head capsules stuffed in with dead ants. When tremendous numbers of dead ants litter the piles, it’s likely the colony is sick or warring with other ants.

Back inside the nest, the ants busy themselves with their daily lives. You can take some cookie crumbs and call them out to you. See how they sniff the earth with their antennae, each one a living being experiencing the world and doing its special job. Watch them communicate, following one another under blades of grass and around pebbles, stopping every now and again to touch one another’s faces, clean their legs, and investigate their surroundings.

Ants saturate our environment, from our homes to the sidewalks, city streets and forests spread all around us. They are our neighbors and our friendly fellow citizens, working away as we work. It’s time we introduce ourselves.

The above is an excerpt from “Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants,” a new eBook written by N.C. State University entomologist Eleanor Spicer Rice. It is available for free download at