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Gardening leads to curiosity about industrial insects

While digging holes to plant tomato seedlings, I found lots of ants in my garden. I expect to disturb an ant nest sometime in the course of the gardening season, but this year I seem to be bothering more ants than usual.

Planting along about 15 feet of trellis, I found four nests with at least three distinct species of ants.

I hurried to be done planting to get out of the afternoon heat and in time to make dinner, so didn’t think to pause and take a photo, which I now regret. I remember what the ants generally looked like, but can’t make accurate IDs based on memory.

I’ve not tried to identify ants before, so am not seasoned in noting particular markings that would identify the types of ants I found.

The first nest I accidentally disturbed looked (to me) like typical ants — medium size and dark brown.

While I didn’t particularly want them crawling on my hands as I worked the soil, I wasn’t too worried about it.

The next nest had different inhabitants — slightly smaller and orange. My first thought was fire ants, but I didn’t think they lived in this area.

I was using a shovel, so had enough distance between the orange ants and me to not worry too much.

I moved on to dig the next few holes before planting, to give the ants time to evacuate the disturbed area.

When I went back to plant I tried to move quickly, and somehow didn’t get a single ant on me in the process.

The next nest had yet again a different species of ants — slightly larger (not as big as carpenter ants) and dark brown with an orange middle section.

I perused the internet, and my best guess for the orange ants is red harvester ant, but I’m not sure about the other two. If I find them again while gardening, I will be sure to take photos for comparison with online ID guides. I also noted that I didn’t see any above ground sign of these nests — no mounds, unless they were very tiny and hidden among the weeds.

Seeing these little insects reminded me of a study I heard about on a podcast. In the study (from the early 2000s, I believe), researchers attached stilts to the legs of desert ants, and then watched as they overshot their destinations, until they got used to their new stride length.

This observation supports the theory that ants count their steps to help them navigate home after finding a food source. An earlier study found evidence that ants also use the sun as a compass.

Looking up ant species to try to identify the ones in my garden, I learned that there are over 12,000 species of ants in the world. They are also the longest living insect — queen ants can live for up to 30 years.

They are also one of the strongest animals in the world, in relation to their size, as they can carry up to 50 times their body weight.

Although ants apparently aren’t great pollinators, they are outstanding at seed dispersal — I read that they are responsible for over 30% of spring flowering herbaceous plants on our part of this continent.

I’m sure if I delved deeper into research, I would find negatives about these little critters, but I chose to stop on a positive note, so I wouldn’t be too worried about negative impacts they might have on my newly planted tomatoes.

ALDONA BIRD is a journalist, previously writing for The Dominion Post. She uses experience gained working on organic farms in Europe to help her explore possibilities of local productivity and sustainable living in Preston County. Email