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The ants are coming! The ants are coming! Actually, they’re already here.   Their large numbers are apparent with every stone I overturn in the yard.  Never have I seen so many so early in the season.

Ants tending their young

During mild winters such as the one we just experienced (the third mildest on record according to Environment Canada) fewer ants succumb to the cold. Consequently, their numbers are higher than usual in the spring and throughout the following summer.

Ants are excellent communicators that are super quick to relay information of new sources of food to one another.   If in doubt, see  Ant Labour.  If you don’t clear the crumbs on your kitchen counter, one ant will tell two friends and they’ll tell two friends and before you can sing ‘Happy Birthday’, they’re walking away with the cake.

The ants shown in these photos are all female.  Male ants are the ones with wings.  If you like to admire them at a distance, you might wish to take action to make sure they don’t make their way into your home.  Some people use cucumber or citrus peelings around their foundations.  Others sprinkle strong spices such as cinnamon or pepper across thresholds.

Ants sharing information as they cross paths near the pantry

Many animals, such as birds and amphibians, enjoy incorporating ants into their diets.  Making your yard friendly to these creatures goes a long way to controlling some of the ant population.  See Why Every Princess Needs a Toad in her Garden and The Flying Anteater.

Of course simply keeping things neat, especially in the kitchen, helps to control the number of ants dropping in uninvited for lunch.  Spraying counters with a solution of vinegar and water may smell wonderfully fresh and clean to us, but not to ants.

Good luck with the invasion and please feel free to share any tips you might have.

Text and images copyright Amy-Lynn Bell 2012

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Drilling for your dinner might give you a headache, but it’s the way of the woodpeckers.  Two types of birds in this family that are especially helpful at keeping the insect population down are the Northern Flickers and the Hairy Woodpeckers. 

Flickers are frequently seen digging into the lawn with their beaks.  They’re a tawny brown with black bars and spots, and sport a bright red bar on the back of their necks.  Their nests are made in hollowed out tree trunks usually found in old growth forests.  Ants are their favorite food and they’re equipped with especially long, raspy tongues ideal for capturing them.

Hairy Woodpeckers are usually seen clinging to tree trunks.  They’re black and white and are slightly larger than the similar Downy Woodpeckers also found in Nova Scotia, with a longer beak and the absence of a black bar on their white tail feathers.  Males of both species have a red dot on the back of their heads.  They excavate their nests in live trees.  They will drill for insects year round, dining on the larvae found under the bark of trees during the winter months.  Feathers over woodpeckers’ nostrils prevent them from inhaling the wood that’s flicked off during the drilling process.

hairy woodpecker

If these woodpeckers didn’t visit my yard, there’d probably be a lot more ants and other insects around.  The sound of their persistent drilling and drumming is most welcome.

Even the woodpecker owes his success to the fact that he uses his head and keeps pecking away until he finishes the job he starts.

~ Coleman Cox

For more information on Northern Flickers, see The Flying Anteater.

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The ants are already active in the yard after such a mild winter.  So, I’m glad to see that a couple of Northern flickers have made a nest nearby.  They are the ants’ worst enemy.

Flickers may not be easy to spot in the morning mist, but their calls to one another are strong and lively.  They’ve been working on their nest in an old tree for the past week.  I’ve also spotted them looking for ants in the lawn. 

These migrating members of the woodpecker family have an unusually long and raspy tongue, not unlike that of an anteater. After digging holes in the ground with their sharp beaks, they use this sticky tongue to gather numerous ants, pupae and eggs quickly and efficiently.  Ants and other insects are the flickers’ primary food. 

Flickers make their nests in old trees, also known as snags.  After a 3 inch diameter hole is made, a large cavity about 15 inches deep is created by both parents.  Six to eight eggs are also incubated by the pair.

At this point, the cavity is still being excavated as I frequently see the birds flinging wood chips out of the hole.  Although they are known to re-use old cavities, this nest is a new one, and there’s much work to be done to create such a deep nesting hole.  The fungus seen growing next to the hole in these photos was removed by them yesterday afternoon.  They’re busy all day long, and the harder they work, the more ants they eat.  Imagine how many ants this entire family will consume over the summer months!

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ants

A social structure that designates its older females as warriors instead of its younger males certainly bears closer scrutiny.  Ants are among the hardest workers in the animal kingdom.  They’re organized with a highly functional and specialized workforce.  Their perseverance alone would put most human workers to shame.

Have you ever noticed how quickly every ant in a colony will diligently get to work when disaster strikes and their mound is disturbed?  They don’t fall into depression or accept defeat.  They keep on building and working towards their goals.

Another quality that makes them so efficient is that they are such excellent communicators.  Much of this is done through the use of pheromones, chemical signals picked up by the ants’ antennae.  But they don’t just let one another know about danger.  They also share information about what work needs to be done and where food can be found.  If one ant finds out that your kitchen is a great spot for dining on sweets, then she’ll tell two friends and they’ll tell two friends and before you know it you’re overrun with ants.  And all without the benefit of Twitter.

ant eggs

All worker ants are female which may explain their superior communication skills.  Males can be distinguished by their two sets of wings.  Queens, while being larger, also have wings which are discarded after mating.

Ants are preyed upon mostly by amphibians, birds and spiders.  Bats usually catch the male ants in flight.  In my yard, flickers have to be the ants’ worse enemy.  These are woodpecker-like birds that have a special long tongue similar to the one anteaters have.  They’re able to dig holes in the ground and catch numerous ants, pupae (the cocoon from which adults emerge) and eggs with this raspy tongue.  The holes are everywhere in my lawn.

hole made by flicker

Ants survive Nova Scotia winters by going deeper underground or into dead trees where they receive some protection from the cold.  Worldwide, they’re found on every continent except Antarctica.

No one preaches better than the ant and she says nothing.

~ Benjamin Franklin

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american toad

Toads have never been popular with humans and females especially.  The thing is, even though toads may be considered ugly creatures, they are actually quite beneficial to gardens and humans.  Much of this has to do with a toad’s diet.

What a toad will eat:

  • ants
  • mosquitoes
  • slugs
  • snails
  • grubs and worms

An adult American Toad, the most common type found here in Nova Scotia and throughout North America, can eat 1,000 insects in one day.  Consequently, just a few toads can have a tremendous effect on insect populations in an area.  A toad’s apetite for slugs and snails is also helpful in controlling these pests in gardens.

Toads can tolerate drier environments than frogs and also have long sticky retractable tongues that they can use to catch insects in flight.  So, how do you attract these darlings to your yard?

  • Allow shallow pools of water to sit in your yard in the springtime.  These temporary pools from excess rain and melting snow are called vernal pools and are all that’s needed for toads to lay their long strands of eggs.  (Frog eggs are laid in clusters).
  • Create piles of dead leaves where toads, which are mostly nocturnal, can bury themselves to keep cool and moist during the day.  They will also bury themselves deep under these as winter approaches.
  • Offer hiding places where toads can stay out of the drying sun.  These can be small caves made from arrangements of stones or overturned terra cotta pots.  Wild areas are also helpful in providing places where toads can remain cool among tall weeds.  Toads like to stay moist, which is a challenge during hot summer months.
  • Refrain from use of pesticides. This last point seems obvious to me, but might not be for gardeners trying to grow fragile non-native plant species.

american toad1

Snakes and loss of habitat are the greatest threat to toads, which can live for up to ten years in the wild.  Try attracting them rather than moving them into your garden from another environment, as they likely won’t survive.   Many toads and frogs will secrete poison to make themselves unpalatable to enemies, so it’s not recommended that you kiss them to see if they’re princes in disguise.

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under stones

Turning over rocks and stones to see what’s living beneath them is a great outdoor activity to get children interested in nature.  Salamanders, ants, spiders, worms and slugs all like to snuggle down beneath stones.  Though each overturning will produce fairly similar results, once they start, children likely won’t be satisfied until they’ve overturned every stone in sight.

During one such session with my grandson last week, I was amazed at the large number of ant tunnels and ants to be found beneath the stones.  Their numbers seem far greater than they used to be.  Good thing there are lots of birds here too.  This spring I’ve already seen flickers and woodpeckers digging for ants in the lawn and woods.   Besides eating great amounts of these insects, flickers are known to keep feather parasites in check by preening themselves with crushed ants.

Salamanders found under stone in mint bed

Frogs and toads also eat their fair share of ants.  Homes can easily be made for these creatures among the stones.  Reptiles also like to dwell beneath stones.  According to my sons, snakes have frequently been found under the rocks at the end of the driveway near the ditch.

One evening years ago, I was startled to see flashlights suddenly brightening the living room window.  As I opened the door, I was relieved to see that it was only our friendly neighbors turning over stones along the flower bed in search of bait for the next morning’s fishing trip.   Besides humans, raccoons are other omnivores that are known to turn over stones in search of hidden treasure, especially in streams.

If you do turn over stones, be sure to put them back in the same place afterwards.  Children will quickly learn to do this if you make it a pre-requisite to turning over the next stone.

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