Fiann Ó Nualláin highlights the work of ants and has a few handy first-aid tips for their bites and stings
Ants in the garden are not quite a pest, they don’t really eat the crops but they do often protect aphids from their natural predators. This is because ants like to sample the honeydew excretion from aphids.
Where they can be a pest is in biting and stinging and for that reason alone they often get vilified. Before we look at how to rid or limit, let’s look at some first aid for their bites and stings.
The common garden variety of ant, the black ant (Lasius niger), has no stinger on its tail end but it does have mandibles (big pinching jaws) meaning we may experience a stinging sensation when bitten. Black ants are never too far from aphids (of which you could say they farm for the sweet ‘honeydew’ secretions) and often among the juiciest strawberries ... so a nip is not implausible but for the most part, they are not aggressive.
However, their nip may be accompanied by a spectacular secondary defence mechanism — that of venom; comprising mainly formic acid sprayed at its enemies and prey and that includes onto gardeners’ skin if we happen to disturb them while weeding or about our business.
The venom has a pH ranging from two-three, which makes it quite a strong acid .
An ant bite manifests as pink pimple-like spots of itchy irritation and often (especially with venom) as a blister-like welt or pustule. It will settle within a few hours and completely resolve naturally in a couple of days at most. Some people are allergic to ant bites and stings and the possibility of anaphylaxis is real — that’s 999 and not just a run under the tap. For non-allergic reactions, the first response is to rinse off the bitten area under the tap, to cool inflamed bite and also wash away any venom.
Elevate the bitten limb and apply a cold compress. Apply calming lotion or anti-itch over the counter medications for secondary symptom relief. Try not to break any pustules in order to prevent potential secondary infections. Keep the wound site clean. If there is persistent or severe swelling/ itching, anti-histamine for one-three days will resolve that.
Anytime I get a nip I resort to a rub of some baking soda which is highly alkaline and helps neutralise formic acid.
Aftercare is a gathering of some lavender and calendula flowers to make a strong tea to apply chilled as bite relief rinse. One could make a quick salve of some flowers with a little coconut oil in a mortar and pestle or by using the essential oil of each in a little petroleum jelly or zinc ointment.
Not all ants sting in the true sense. Most do not have a physical stinger, but ants do have a defence mechanism of a venom spray — comprised mainly of formic acid.
Both bites and venom spray can be experienced as a sting so it is often difficult to differentiate.
One ant that is no stranger to the garden setting that does have a physical sting is the red ant (Myrmica rubra) often called a fire ant, not on the basis of its colour but via its burning sting which it delivers with acidic venom.
Fire ants are aggressive and fearless creatures, and I say creatures because we gardeners always experience them in the plural — they are never alone in an attack — so expect multiple stings.
A single fire ant can deliver up to seven or eight stings in a circular pattern, injecting its toxin-rich venom with each plunge. Fire ant stings inevitably blister into white pustules that can last up to a week but most naturally resolve in a few hours to a day or two. They are accompanied by itching and irritation. Some people are allergic to stings and always seek emergency assistance if you suspect anaphylaxis onset.
As a first response, stings are best elevated and treated with a cold pack or tea towel of ice. However, first I recommend washing the site to flush away venom and then applying some baking soda to neutralise any remaining formic acid, it also helps dry the pustules. Do not drain or break the pustules.
Antihistamines and over-the-counter topical steroid creams are often recommended.
I favour an infusion of echinacea flowers — rich in caffeic acid which speeds the wound healing process and traditionally has been utilised to draw out poisons. A compress of steamed but cooled comfrey foliage is remedial to itch and wound but if you have none then try a cabbage compress which is soothing and antiseptic.
I really don’t mind ants at all but it is one of the things I am often asked about at gardening events, so over the years, I have looked at how they can be removed with the least amount of commercially ‘toxic intervention’ into the garden.
There are a few organic methods that will help. They may take more than one attempt but proprietary pest poisons are not something I would want to handle or leave about the garden.
The old tradition was to mix some Boric acid and sugar (equal parts) and leave it near the ant nest or where you found a steady trail (if unable to locate nest mouth). The sweet sugar is the lure and the boric acid (aka borax) is toxic to the ant a while after ingestion.
It’s a digestive-system poison. Because the ants bring their bounty back to feed the queen, there is a good chance she will also get poisoned and so the colony will collapse without her dominance.
The other gruesome treatment is to pour a kettle of boiling water down the nest mouth every day for a few days. The scalding flood may not cook the queen but it will kill enough that the colony will have to move — that may be two metres away into the next garden, 2km down the road or just to the other end of yours. Less effective than the sweetened pill.
Apple cider vinegar or white vinegar poured down the nest mouth is acidic to the ant’s exoskeletons and so delivers some unpleasantness warranting a move. The reason vinegar is used to eradicate ants from the porch or kitchen is that its pungent odour overrides the ants’ pheromone trails which ants leave to find food sources or locate their way home.
A good glug is such a disruptive force that often the queen will abandon and thus the soldiers wither without orders.
The other drench is a mix of equal parts washing up liquid and vegetable oil. The oil and soap coat the ants in a suffocating sludge and the soap is often caustic or irritant to their exoskeletons.
If you don’t fancy this then you can go biological with nematodes — microscopic worms which are the ultimate natural predators of ants. Ask in your local garden centre.