By Kim Strader
One song I remember from childhood is “High Hopes”. I’m sure you remember the song with the lyrics that an ant can’t move a rubber tree plant. This song always had me laughing while imagining a little tiny ant trying to move a big huge tree on its back. This is my earliest memory of anything having to do with ants and somewhere along the way I went from loving the little ant to not really liking them at all. In fact, I have a confession to make, I started hating ants to the point that I would squish them anytime one was near.
Mind you, I am someone who loves all things in nature and believes everything in nature has a purpose or a function yet I had no problem ending the life of a little ant. Are you this way? Do you kill ants upon sight? If so, you may want to reconsider your actions because ants are superheroes in the world of native wildflowers. They may not be able to move the rubber tree plant but they can and do move many of our spring ephemeral woodland wildflowers.
Before you start imagining the little ant moving a Bloodroot or Trillium by placing the entire plant on its back and walking away, this is not how they move plants. Instead, ants move plants by moving the seeds. Yes, ants are great seed dispersers and it is so well known that there is a term for this method of seed dispersal – Myrmecochory. Many consider our Eastern North American forests to be a global hotspot for this activity.
It is not the actual seed the ants want but a fleshy appendage on the seed called an elaiosome. Elaiosomes are rich in lipids (fatty acid) and make the perfect food for growing ant larvae. After removing the elaisome to feed it to their larvae, ants move the seed to their refuse pile, located within or outside of the nest. The ants trash pile is like a compost pile full of rich organic matter, thereby giving the seed a perfect place to germinate and grow.
So, the next time you want to squish that little ant, just remember, ants can move plants! Our native spring ephemeral plants depend on ants to disperse their seeds thereby spreading and increasing populations of our beloved early spring woodland wildflowers.
Here is a list of some of the plants that ants move thanks to the elaiosomes on their seeds:
- Spring Beauty
- Trout Lily
- Wild Ginger