Ants and Peonies

Ants are commonly found on peony buds. The buds secrete a sweet liquid that attracts ants. This has led to the false notion that the presence of ants is necessary for peonies to bloom. There is no truth to this urban legend. Peonies consistently bloom in controlled environments where ants are not present.

Is it advantageous for peonies to attract ants? Possibly. The scientific literature contains many examples of mutualism between ants and plants. In typical plant-ant mutualisms, plants provide ants with food or shelter. In return, ants may attack herbivores that feed on the plant, attack competing plants nearby or perform other services for the plant. However, I am not aware of any scientific study of the relationship between peonies and ants.

The typical method of determining the benefit that plants derive from ants is to compare plants with ants and plants with ants removed. However, Removal of ants from peonies in American gardens does not clearly have a negative effect. Why?

The peony most commonly planted in American gardens is the Chinese Peony, Paeonia lactiflora. Garden peonies have been cultivated and bred for their horticultural characteristics. Associations between ants and peonies could be an artifact of selection for horticulture traits, or the association between ants and peonies could have more relevance to wild peonies in their native habitat with the full complement of native pests. Perhaps studies of peonies in their native habitat will offer clues to their interactions with ants.

An ant and an aphid rest on a peony bud.

About jjneal

Jonathan Neal is an Associate Professor of Entomology at Purdue University and author of the textbook, Living With Insects (2010). This blog is a forum to communicate about the intersection of insects with people and policy. This is a personal blog. The opinions and materials posted here are those of the author and are in no way connected with those of my employer.
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1 Response to Ants and Peonies

  1. James Tomell says:

    I am also a Hoosier, having been born in Valparaiso, then returned to Valpo for my undergraduate education. I am now in the Philippines (an entomologist’s paradise) and teaching high value crop growers the value of beneficial insects as a component of developing a small farm level permaculture environment. Insects are only a part of the overall approach to developing a planting area, but when the local environment is attractive to beneficial insects and the soil is healthy, insect pest damage is minimal. We intensively farm more than two hectares in two different locations producing organic vegetables and herbs. We experience less than five percent marketable crop loss due to insect damage.

    However, don’t ask me about how I am faring with the ants residing under my house and currently chewing on my feet and ankles.

    I grew up with peony plants along the fence in our backyard in Aurora, Illinois. Those plants are now at least 100 years old. They have never been transplanted. There are solid red, white and pink blossoms. And yes, they have always had large black ants on them while they were budding and blooming. The peonies are the only place we found these ants.

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