On Sunday, February 26, 2017, The Nashua River Watershed Association’s meeting room was filled for the public lecture “Ants in Your Plants,” co-sponsored by the Groton Garden Club.   This slide show and lively presentation by Elizabeth Farnsworth, Senior Research Ecologist at New England Wildflower Society, brought new and interesting information, on ecosystems and how ants and other insects benefit plants, to the community.

Illustrator and insect expert Elizabeth Farnsworth, third from the right, with members of the Groton Garden Club

Elizabeth focused on three areas:

The associations between insects and other organisms

Insects as indicators and shapers

Using insects to foster an appreciation of nature

The importance of insects in our ecosystem becomes apparent when we consider that they pollinate 85% of our crops. Also, certain insects can control invasives; some types of beetles can control the invasive purple loosestrife. We learned that plants communicate through chemicals. Their hormones send out signals to other plants, not necessarily of the same variety, that they have been wounded.  The nearby plants then create their own defensive compound.  This is done through the air, and also in the ground as a fungal transmission in the root system. Some plants send out signals to parasitic wasps, who lay eggs that grow up and eat invading insects.

These plants have odd smells for a reason: skunk cabbage can appear so early in spring because it has a respiratory system that emits hot air to melt the snow.  Its odor, which does not smell like skunk, but rather like rotted meat, attracts flies, who pollinate by moving from one plant to another.  There is a variety of native New England orchid that smells like a human body, and thus attracts mosquitos, who are its pollinators.

A few interesting facts about ants: They pollinate by moving seeds close to their home, eating the outer tissue, and leaving the pods to germinate.  Ants are also creators of top soil, although it takes 150 years of moving dirt in their nests to create one inch of top soil.  Ants have a protective relationship with the Karner Blue Butterfly, and will fiercely fend off predators during the butterfly’s caterpillar stage.

Information for the protection of ecosystems, including for creating pollinator gardens, is available on the web sites of the non-profit New England Wildflower Society and of the Xerces Society.

Submitted by Donna Nowak

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