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Weekly Gardening Guide: Ants and Peonies

May 27, 2015

There are a few misconceptions about the relationship between peonies and big, black ants.  It is certainly disturbing the first time you find your precious peony covered in these little beasts!  
The favourite old wives’ tale is that ants eat a waxy covering on the outside of the bud, which allows the bud to open and the petals to unfurl.  While the idea of this sweet symbiotic relationship helps us tolerate the ants, it is actually a myth.

According to the Iowa State University Extension, peonies have extrafloral nectaries, or nectar glands, on the scales covering the buds.  When the buds swell, the nectar is released and the ants are attracted to the sweetness of it.  After the buds have opened, they usually lose interest and go in search of their next meal.

Many people believe that ants on peonies will inevitably lead to ants in the house, however ants will only settle where they find a good habitat and food sources.  Modern homes are usually lacking in both, and the ants would need a pretty good reason to make the big voyage from your garden to your home.

Using pesticides, baits, traps, and other control measures are common to remove the ants from peony buds.  Buts the ants really do perform a service for us.  They happily attack other predators and pests that might damage the bud before it opens, and by killing theses pests, ants are also protecting other plants in the garden.  Many pesticides also leave residues that can affect other pollinators that visit the flowers later, and this can travel through the food chain. 

We recommend that you let the ants follow their little ant hearts, and just shake out the blooms to dislodge remaining ants from inside the petals before you bring them inside.  Alternatively, some people believe that tree peonies produce less nectar on the bud and have far fewer ant visitors, so that may be an option if you aren't insect friendly.  And you can let us know whether or not that is an old wives’ tale!

- Written by guest author and our very own perennials guru, Bonnie Rook

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