Ants! More Beneficial than You Think

Ants! More Beneficial than You Think

About a month ago, I got a letter in the mail from a termite company, Terminix, which began with the following: “Ants can be more harmful to your family than you think. That’s because these monsters (and others, like cockroaches may carry more than a dozen kinds of bacteria, like strep and staph. And where there’s one of these pests, there could be hundreds….”

I asked Anna Dornhaus, University of Arizona professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology,
for a response to this, and whether ants created a bacterial threat to the average homeowner with ants on their property.
Her reply:  “My gut reaction to your pesticide company ad is that this is absolute nonsense – of course, all insects can carry bacteria as can your shoes etc. – but where would the ants get these bacteria from? The mentioned illnesses are transmitted from human to human, and shaking your neighbor’s hand certainly transmits a lot more bacteria than any ants that may or may not enter both your and the neighbor’s house.”
Dornhaus said the belief that ants are pests is a misconception. She said ants in general are extremely useful and important ecologically, they remove dead insects and other small animals, they disperse seeds, protect plants, etc. “They are also one of the most fascinating creatures around, with complex societies much like ours in many ways, including democratic decision-making, division of labor, agriculture, etc.”

Horned toad lizard in Arizona (Kent Wood photo)

I personally have always found harvester ants fascinating, watching them travel long distances back to their nests to bring whatever seed is ripe that week. They also serve an important role in being a primary food for horned lizards (aka horny toads).

Harvester ant nest (Google Images)

But I’ve had trouble warming up to other ants crawling all over my compost and attacking the earthworms. I admit I am guilty of using Terro baits when they drive me too crazy. I am revisiting that practice, however.

There’s lots more to write on ants but for now, see below for more info:

  • Identifying Ants: Dornhouse says identifying ants to species is hard and has to be done by a specialist. Good websites are:
Myrmecos (Alex Wild on insects, science and photography) – great website for identifying ants, beautiful photos
Bug Guide (Iowa State University) – for identifying insects, spiders & kin in the U.S. and Canada
Antweb – California Academy of Sciences (specimen identification)
  • I found this ant blog by the Field Museum in Chicago interesting
About Linda Richards

My goal is to educate about the science of nature in layperson speak, through my writing, science and education background. I grew up in the Chicago area, loved living in Minneapolis before gravitating to the West, which is now home.


  1. Received a notice yesterday from the California Dept of Food & Agriculture County, Agricultural Commissioner’s Office that they are coming tomorrow to spray my front and back yards with a pesticide meant to protect the citrus trees. I am horrified. How could this NOT effect bees, ants and my pets?

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