From Pests to Pollinators
Alex Hodge is a member of the 2016 Urban Naturalist Program. She is a senior studying Environmental Management at Indiana University. As a part of the Urban Naturalist team, Alex has the opportunity to work on a variety of green-job inspired projects while tending to Indy’s native landscape.
From watermelon seed spitting contests, to picking flowers to arrange as a centerpiece on the dinner table, the joys we derive from summertime are intrinsically tied to the great outdoors. What we enjoy least, however, are the bites from bugs that irritate our skin. The need for summer breezes blowing through the windows also opens up our homes to what many consider pests, like ants, who like to dine on the bits of neglected food along our counter tops. One man’s crumb, is a measly ant’s dinner, eh? The plot thickens when we revisit what brings many of us joy: the flowers atop the dining room table around the corner from your “pest-infested” kitchen.
By now, many of us are familiar with the concept of pollinators. If not, here is a little review. There are two kinds of plants in this world: self-pollinating and cross-pollinating. The latter plants need birds, bats, and insects to act as vectors in order to move pollen grains from plant to plant (and don’t worry, these ‘grains’ are gluten-free). This motion of pollen-pushing, allows for plants to successfully germinate, grow fruits/seeds, and ultimately reproduce. Pollinators also aid self-pollinating plants although they are not needed; but the presence of pollinators in any ecosystem boosts genetic diversity – which leads us to one big positive feedback loop when it comes to ecology.
Now, let’s revisit those bugs crawling all over the counter-tops in your abode (likely making you feel a bit miffed). Why won’t they just go away? Have you considered that maybe it’s best that they stick around? If you haven’t quite caught my drift … ants are pollinators! Although they are wingless, ants march their six little legs all over the Earth’s ground vegetation. As it turns out, they’re doing our plants a lot of favors.
Ants are unique pollinators. Bear with me here, I’m going to throw quite a big word into the mix: myrmecochory. At the very least, you can tell it to your friends and sound like a real ant expert (although I’m not sure how many of you are sold on that suggestion.) No matter, stripped down to its Greek roots, myrmecochory means “circular dance.” Insect and plant lovers alike understand it to signify the relationship that ants share with plants as prime “seed dispersers.” Seed-dispersal, aided by ants, involves a whopping 11,000 plant species worldwide! Ants lug seeds back to their burrows, eat the edible bits (called an elaiosome), and discard of the seeds – allowing for the seeds to have the chance to spawn a new plant.
There’s a healthy dose of quid pro quo here, so calling it a dance feels quite appropriate to me. Myrmecochory occurs among our woodlands’ floors. Here, spring ephemerals thrive with the aid of ants. A single colony can collect as many as 1,000 seeds in a season – that can lead to significant seed dispersal and establishment. So the next time you feel compelled to squish the little creepy crawler in your home, maybe just let it outside. It has bigger fish to fry.