There are two main reasons ants climb trees: to build a nest or feed on honeydew produced by the sap-feeding insects living on trees.
Why Do Ants Climb Trees?
Ants like comfort, and when they find a good spot to nest in a tree, they exploit the opportunity. Usually, ants like to build their nests in tree cavities where it is hidden and comfortable and continue to grow in numbers.
Naturally, ants like to feed on sugary things, and honeydew is one of their favorites.
Honeydew is produced by sap-feeding pests like aphids and scale insects that live on trees. These pests feed on the sap produced by the leaves of trees, which explains why they live there.
When ants identify a steady supply of honeydew, they become invested in protecting the source. Therefore, they will climb the particular tree where the aphids are in plenty and do whatever it takes to keep the bugs safe.
To that effect, the ants will stand guard over the bugs and protect them from their predators, the likes of hoverflies, damsel bugs, and soldier beetles.
Occasionally, ants will move the aphids and scale insects from one area of a tree to another where the sap is more available. In exchange, ants earn the privilege of dining on the bugs’ excreta.
In other scenarios, ants climb trees because nectar-producing flowers attract them. Remember that ants love sweet things- so, if there is nectar on a tree, it is highly likely that ants will climb to reach it.
Related: Why do Ants Build Mounds?
The Relationship Between Ants and Trees
While it is not very obvious, plants and ants do benefit from each other in certain circumstances. This mutual benefit begins in the early stages of a tree’s life. As we all know, ants build and live in volcano-like heaps of soils known as anthills, which vary in size from tiny to several feet high.
In some regions of Northern America, where there are no earthworms, these anthills form the topsoil. Interestingly, ants create soil about ten times as fast as earthworms as they can dig up to 30,000 pounds of soil per acre.
This soil creates a foundation for trees to grow. Furthermore, the soil is rich in nutrients and balanced in pH levels, providing the optimum conditions for a tree to thrive.
Additionally, there are trees that house and feed ants directly, and in return, the ants protect these trees as their source of food and habitat.
The trees produce structures that secrete food bodies that are rich in protein and sugar to provide an ant’s diet. Most of these trees, such as the bull horn acacia of Central America, have thorns and internodes in their hollow structures where ants can build nests.
In return, ants become protective of the tree and aggressively fight off any kind of predators that may cause harm to the tree. They also prune vines that may pose the danger of engulfing the trees. This kind of mutual relationship between ants and trees is common in the tropics.
While carpenter ants are associated with damage, they can be useful in signaling that a tree may not be healthy. Thus, action will be taken to improve the health of the tree or cut the tree before it infects neighboring plants. If they go unnoticed, however, carpenter ants are potentially harmful to trees.
Related: Do Carpenter Ants Eat Wood?
Do Ants Harm Trees?
Ants are not direct risk factors to the health of trees; some even improve the overall wellbeing of trees. However, they can play roles that may lead to the destruction of trees. For one, they protect aphids and scale insects that produce honeydew, and as a result, these insects increase in their population.
A high population of aphids and scale insects can lead to considerable damage to trees. This is because the amount of sap that they will be siphoning from parts of the trees will be high. Thus, the tree will lose more food than it produces, forcing it to survive on reserved energy. Eventually, the tree will weaken, and its limbs may start falling, potentially killing the tree.
Furthermore, honeydew is a sticky liquid that may lead to sooty mold. When it covers the leaves of the tree, the process of photosynthesis may be interfered with. Photosynthesis is the process through which a plant makes its own food.
The only ants that may pose a direct risk to trees are carpenter ants. These ants infest decaying trees, where the wood is soft and has moisture.
While they are not responsible for the decaying of the tree, carpenter ants speed up the downfall of the tree by excavating tunnels and chambers from the decayed sections into the good wood throughout the tree.
If the tree had a chance of growing back to health, carpenter ants would reduce these chances. If these ants are not discovered and destroyed, the tree will eventually die out.
How Can You Prevent Ants from Climbing Trees?
One of the most effective methods to keep ants from trees is cutting the supply of honeydew. This is achieved by ridding the tree of sap-feeding insects such as aphids using insecticides or horticultural soap. Without honeydew, ants will not have a reason to climb on the tree.
Another effective method is destroying anthills that are close to a tree as it will force the ants to relocate. To achieve this, flood the nest with water or a garden hose and keep at it until all the ants move.
You can also sprinkle ant-repellents at the base of the tree to confuse them and keep them away. Ant repellents would include black pepper, cinnamon, and scented bay powder.
Also, you could apply sticky substances around the tree, such as Tanglefoot, which will create a physical barrier that will prevent the ants from going up a tree. Placing baits and pouring insecticides at the base of the tree are also effective at getting rid of ants.
Boric acid is another alternative, although it can be toxic to children, pets, and the environment if used incorrectly.
Ants climb trees to feed on honeydew or build nests if the tree is homey enough. While ants may be beneficial to trees, they can also be dangerous. There are various ways by which you can prevent ants from climbing your trees, as highlighted in the article.