Are Ants Bad for Cactus?

Ants, like most insects and pests, are never a good sight when seen crawling over your cactus plants. The good news is that a small number of ants aren’t all bad for your cacti in California. This is because ants feed on the sugary nectar forming on cacti and, in exchange, protect them from other pests.

In smaller quantities, you may not even notice ants on your cactus. Things may become problematic if the ants decide to set up a base near the cactus and overwhelm it in large numbers.

The cactus may be unable to keep producing enough nectar, or the sight of ants may become unruly for you to keep tolerating. In both cases, you may want to remove the ants from the cactus.

How Some Cacti Deter Pests in the Cruel Desertscapes

Botanists have observed the mutually beneficial relationship between cacti and ants play out in the harsh desert environment. An ant species known as the Crematogaster opuntia has been found to set up colonies around cactus species, such as the Saguaro cactus. This plant uses extra floral nectaries to secrete a juice that ants are fond of feeding on.

The Crematogaster will aggressively defend the cactus plant, especially during drought. This deters larger insects, including browsers, from damaging the skin of cactus plants, which can lead to moisture loss. The last thing any cactus plant wants is to lose moisture during drought.

Ants have certain mechanisms that quickly alert them as soon as their precious cactus is being attacked and will swarm the enemy within seconds.

In most cases, ants indicate that your cactus plants are under attack from other, more dangerous pets such as aphids, scales, and mealybugs. Although ants will aggressively defend their food source from other aggressors, including your cactus, you shouldn’t depend on them to keep pests out.

It’s important to thoroughly inspect your cactus to check for signs of other pests.

Cactus Species that are Likely to Attract Ants

Below is a list of cacti in California that ants are likely to target because of their sweet nectar.

  • Opuntia
  • Coryphantha
  • Theolactus
  • Sclerocactus
  • Cylindropuntia
  • Ferocactus
  • Echinocactus

Any cactus species that grow extrafloral nectaries from their glands to attract ants. In doing so, the cactus may lose its water reservoirs. So if you plan on allowing the ants to set up a colony near the cactus, you may want to give them a bit more water to prevent the moisture from drying out.

But What if I Want to Get Rid of the Ants?

Getting Rid of AntsDetails
Diatomaceous EarthSet up a barrier of diatomaceous earth around your pots containing the cactus plant
Wash the CactusClean the cactus and its roots from remaining ants and relocate it to fresh soil
Relocate the CactusFind a different location for your cactus plant
Air circulationGood ventilation discourages pests from setting up shop around your plants
Neem oilNeem oil slows down and even kills ants
MintAnts hate mint with a passion

Although ants in smaller quantities aren’t as much of a danger to the cactus, they are often a sign that other predators are actively prowling near your plant. It would help if you never tolerated pests such as aphids and mealybugs feasting on your cactus. They will cause problems and create undue stress on your plants.

This is why it may be best for your cactus if you decide to get rid of all pests – including ants. The sections below will discuss strategies to ward off ants and other pests.

A Barrier of Diatomaceous Earth

Diatomaceous earth is very effective at deterring pests. The best part is that it’s not poisonous and doesn’t have to be eaten to kill pests. Instead, the lethal powder works by absorbing the fats and oils from the cuticle of exoskeletons in most pests. Diatomaceous earth has extremely sharp edges that can speed up this process.

In most cases, diatomaceous earth can start working in as little as 24 hours, especially if you leave it undisturbed. However, you may notice better results after about five days. Diatomaceous earth can be found in most garden centers.

The best way to use diatomaceous powder is to create a barrier around your pots. Think of it like a fortress keeping enemies at bay.

Wash the Cactus and Roots

If an ant infestation has already swarmed your cacti, you can unpot the plant to wash its roots until the pests are gone. For obvious reasons, you should wear protective gloves so as not to get pierced by the sharp spines growing on cactus plants.

It would help if you replanted the cactus in fresh, uncontaminated soil to prevent a future infestation. For best results, consider placing a mesh screen in the pot to prevent ants from reentering the drain hole. You can find a mesh screen from most garden centers or at the nearest Home Depot.

Relocate the Cactus

Ants and other pests may frequent the area to see if they can reinfest the cactus. Consider moving your cactus to a different location the ants haven’t been to yet. But ensure that the ambient environment isn’t too different from the cactus’s original location. This is particularly true for sunlight, moisture, and temperature levels. Try to replicate these parameters to minimize the stress on your plant.

Provide Good Air Circulation

Air circulation is extremely underrated for houseplants, and most growers don’t even consider ventilation when trying to deter pests. Proper airflow not only regulates the temperature and moisture levels but also prevents the formation of mildew – a key reason why pests and ants are attracted to your cacti in California.

And a side effect of good air circulation is that it improves the air quality for everyone in your family. So it’s a win-win that you should consider.

Using Neem Oil

Neem oil is a natural insecticide that can slow down and even kill ants while decreasing the rate at which they can feed on cacti. Neem oil is extremely effective when sprayed on ants or poured over their mounds. It also kills other pests that rely on the plant for food.

Neem oil is effective because it emits a strong odor that immediately removes most pests. You can prepare a mixture of neem oil at home by following these steps:

  • Mix one teaspoon of mild liquid soap with ½ table teaspoon of neem oil concentrate
  • Toss the mixture into 1 liter of lukewarm water
  • Allow the ingredients to mix thoroughly
  • Now pour some of the mixtures into a spray bottle; remember to shake it well
  • Test the mixture on a small portion of the cactus to see its reaction before using it on the whole plant; this will ensure that the plant doesn’t get damaged

Use Mints to Scare Away Ants

Ants hate the smell of mint and will stay away from areas of your house that contain plants such as catnip, sage, spearmint, and peppermint.

But if you’re not ready to take care of another plant, you may spray the mint mixture around your house.

This is done by mixing about 10 to 20 drops of peppermint essential oil in two cups of water. Now toss the ingredients into a bottle and spray it around your home.

Blue Columnar Cactus, Pilosocereus pachycladus Cacti, Column Cactus, Blue Torch Cactus, Woolly Torch Cactus, in 4 inch Pot

Wrapping Up – Are Ants Bad for Cactus?

So there you have it, an in-depth look at the symbiotic relationship between ants and certain species of cacti in California. In most cases, you may decide to ward off ants using the abovementioned methods. Keep things natural by sticking to insecticides such as neem oil and mint. Let us know if you’ve ever observed the symbiotic relationship between ants and cacti play out.

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