Ants are “programmed” to do a particular task without a leader, so if you kill one or a whole group, the rest of them just keep on trucking, in your kitchen, on your patio, in your trash cans. Redlands Conservancy doesn’t see ants as a problem, however. They are an essential cog in the environmental wheel.
According to Redlands Conservancy’s Outdoor Education Coordinator Kathy Havert, there are 270 species of ants that are native to California. The most prevalent ant species in the inland area are the invasive Argentine ant and the fire ant, both small. Other common ants in Southern California are the carpenter, harvester, odorous House, pharaoh and velvety tree ants.
At Redlands Gateway Ranch, Redlands Conservancy’s Outdoor Experience Headquarters in Live Oak Canyon, harvester ants are making a big show now. The harvester ants make large nests in open space in the ground, with a one-half inch hole. The obvious remnants of seeds the ants have harvested from nearby plants are scattered around the nest entrance.
“Harvester ants in semi-arid to arid environments, such as we have here in Redlands, are major shapers of their habitats,” said University of Redlands biology professor Jim Blauth said.
According to Blauth, the dark brown half-inch long harvester ants are seed eaters and seed dispersers, which makes them a real contributor to the spreading of seeds in a natural environment.
They collect seeds from a wide area, (often tens of meters radius) around their nests.
“Some seeds are dropped along the way or end up in their chaff piles outside the nest,” Blauth said. “The seeds may germinate in the next rainy season.”
Another piece of this environmental synergistic relationship with ants are the invertebrates’ use the ants’ chaff pile as a resource. Circus beetles fit into this category, according to Blauth. The beetles then become a source of food for other animals. The ants themselves are an important food source for insect-eating insects, lizards, birds and small mammals.
Havert adds that the work of ants opens the soil to aeration and hydration, and the ant trails and holes provide areas for seed propagation and larval development of other insects.
At Gateway Ranch, harvester ant nests can be found along the trails and the driveways. Blauth said the nests are large and extensive, allowing air and water to penetrate deeper into the ground. Those large nests can accumulate nutrients and can retain water, and they persist over years to decades.
Once abandoned, nests become resource islands that support lush plant growth in otherwise dry and nutrient-poor soils, like decomposed granite driveways.
“Ants are really fascinating,” said Havert. “There are some ants that actually are predators of other ants. Ants are so common we seldom see them as having a benefit for our environment.”
The conservancy encourages anyone hiking at Herngt “Aki” Preserve, San Timoteo Nature Sanctuary, Saha’tapa Trail or Gateway Ranch to look down and be careful to not disturb the harvester ant nests.
They are important to the environmental health of the region.