Don’t make a mountain out of an ant hill – why ants in your lawn may not be a problem

Ant hill build in an area with short sparse grass
Ant hill built at the entrance to the nest. Cornfield ants (Lasius neoniger) prefer sunny areas with short and sparse grass. Photo courtesy of Matt Frye, NYS IPM.

Now that the weather is getting warmer and you’re spending more time outside, you might notice ant hills in your lawn. Reaching for a can of something that will kill them should not be your first move! These ants may be cornfield ants (known among scientists as Lasius neoniger). They are yellowish brown to dark brown, and about 1/8 of an inch long (or slightly longer). You are most likely to notice the ant hills they produce at the entrance to their underground nest in a sunny lawn where the grass is short and sparse (since this is their preferred nesting area). While the ant hills could be problematic on parts of a golf course where the grass must be kept very short, they aren’t big enough to be a problem in your backyard (if you’re mowing your grass to the correct height, which should be about 3.5 inches).

In addition to being harmless to humans – they don’t sting or bite – these ants are actually good for your lawn! They eat the eggs of grass pests, including Japanese beetles. One study found that when these ants were present in turf grass, they reduced the numbers of white grubs and other grass pest larvae. Choosing not to apply pesticides to kill these ants will help you practice conservation biocontrol in your own backyard! In other words, by protecting the natural enemies of lawn pests, you will have fewer lawn pests (and less damage) to worry about.

ants entering nest
Ants entering and exiting their nest. Cornfield ants (Lasius neoniger) are about 1/8 inch long, and range from light to dark brown. Consult an expert for correct identification. Photo courtesy of Matt Frye, NYS IPM.

Although these cornfield ants should be a welcome addition to your lawn for the reasons I’ve just described, if the hills they create are bothering you, there are some simple IPM solutions. Water and fertilize your lawn appropriately and use one of the top two height settings on your mower when cutting your grass. These strategies will help you achieve a denser, taller lawn. This type of lawn is less desirable for building new ant nests, and will make remaining ant hills less noticeable. For more information on maintaining healthy lawns, see the Cornell Turfgrass program’s Lawn Care: The Easiest Steps to an Attractive Environmental Asset.

A few final (but important) notes. Cornfield ants in your yard are a good thing. Ants in your home are a different story entirely, and NYS IPM has information on how to avoid in-home ant problems. If you are uncertain about what type of ant you have, consult an expert for proper identification. Your local extension office is a great place to start. Or, you can submit a sample to the Cornell Insect Diagnostic Laboratory.

Learn more about IPM for your lawn at Landscapes, Parks, and Golf Courses and ThinkIPM blog posts.