Orchard Tip: When Ants Attack Fruit Trees

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western thatching ants fruit trees
Western Thatching Ants chowing down on my pear tree buds.

I’ve always kept a healthy distance from ants. The notion of strength in numbers is not lost on me. If the Lilliputians could secure one colossal Gulliver, I fear a robust colony of wee ants could serve up a napping Neanderthal like me quite handily given the chance. My wariness of ants came at an early age in the South, when I knew any contact with the aptly named fire ant would lead to high kicks, screams and tears in a matter of seconds–not a pretty display for any child flailing under the confines of peer-driven coolness and conformity. Lucky for me even grown men reacted the same way when on the receiving end of fire ant’s bite.

western thatching ants in tree
It takes a colony…to take down a tree

Here in the Pacific Northwest, we have the Western Thatching Ant, a slightly more genteel cousin, but one that packs a punch if provoked or crossed. This species of ant builds formidable hills, easily the size of a half-buried mini cooper. The warmer temperatures of spring awaken Western Thatching Ants like a call to the mess tent. As voracious diners, they consume both insects and plants depending on seasonal preference and availability. While they are considered a beneficial insect that cleans up the forest floor of buggy riffraff and plant debris, they also treat my orchard like a vertical buffet of tender emerging buds.  When ants attack fruit trees, they can denude it of the flower buds needed for fruit development and production. I love my pears, apples and cherries too much to give them up that readily to legion of opportunistic arthropods.

close-up pear blossoms
Note the chewing holes in the flower buds

Since I don’t spray my orchards with pesticides, I have to outwit this legion of bud munchers and look for a solution that is mechanical in nature, one that would prevent the ants from climbing into the trees in the first place. My solution was to create a trunk roadblock using a product called Tanglefoot. The idea is to wrapped the trunk in a stretchy plastic flagging tape and then coat it lightly with a sticky substance that keeps the ants from crossing. Here’s how you do it.

tanglefoot ants tape
A no-go: The ants circle, then retreat.

When Ants Attack Your Fruit Trees

How to keep them away from the buds and fruit.

Materials:

  • Flagging tape (a non-adhesive tape used to mark boundaries)
  • Tanglefoot
  • Disposable paint brush

Instructions:

  1. Start in the morning before ants become active
  2. Shake the tree to knock off any ants that may be there already.
  3. Wrap trunk with flagging tape (which stretches) just below first branches
  4. Wrap it around going upward to create an overlap.
  5. Wrap tape around enough to create a three to four inch band around the trunk.
  6. Pull the final end of tape under the last loop and pull tightly to cinch.
  7. Coat flagging tape with thin layer of Tanglefoot.
  8. I use an old shaving brush, but a disposable paint brush works fine.
  9. Be careful not to get any Tanglefoot on the bare trunk
  10. Leave top and bottom edge clean.

Caution:  You never want to apply the Tanglefoot directly to the tree.  I did do this once and it badly sunburned the bark and caused it to become callous and split. I suspect this continuous practice would girdle the tree trunk eventually.

I found the tanglefoot needs to be reapplied after a couple months, especially when fruit begins to ripen, which brings the ants out for dessert.

tree tape tanglefoot.jpg
Start from the bottom of the trunk and wrap upward.
taped tree trunk
Take the top end, and pull under the top loop to tighten on itself. Trim excess.
tape
Tanglefoot is the consistency of creamed honey, but brushes on nicely thin.

 

36 COMMENTS

  1. Tom, I hope that works for you. Those ants remind me somewhat of leafcutter ants who gather plant material to feed the fungus that they grow underground. I wonder if youraunts also grow a fungus; I’ll have to google it. I personally do the fire ant stomp or jig several times a season. Be very glad that they have not made it to your area because climate change means their range is expanding.

    • It’s funny, these ants have very specific seasonal behavior. Sometimes they farm aphids, and other times chew on apples, and other times trim tender plants. Very industrious little critters, and again they create huge, huge mounds in wooded areas.

  2. In the San Francisco Bay Area we have Argentine ants that protect the aphids. We put a three inch band of Tanglefoot on the trunk of our plum tree and the ants ended up sacrificing themselves to create a bridge for their brothers. Talk about frustrating! Other years the Tanglefoot has done its job.

    • Wow Karen, regarding the Argentine ants, now that’s commitment. I’m waiting for the day, when the ants bite off stems and build bridges across the Tanglefoot. If that happens, it’s official; the insects have won.

  3. I definitely do not miss the fire ants from my time spent in Florida! They were so bad that I wasn’t comfortable letting the kids play outside without supervision. Little chance they will invade here in Central Oregon. Our hard freezes may make gardening a real challenge, but they do protect us from fire ants (and fleas, and a few other nasties).

    • Your right Sue, even in the Puget Sound region, our wet and cool climate creates a less than optimum habitat for some of the insect world’s baddest bugs.

  4. This info is certainly going to be used! We have tent catepillars here in the north, and by the looks of the nests in the trees, it’s going to be a bumper crop this year. They nest in the wild cherry trees, but soon move on to other trees and completely strip the foliage. I’m sure this will prevent them getting up there as well. Thanks, Tom! You always have great info.

    • Thanks Sue, and yep we have tent caterpillars too, usually on a ten year cycle though. One year, they were so prevalent and falling out of the alders that they caused a slick road hazard on some parts of the island.

  5. I’m afraid the Tanglefoot will not help you with the tent caterpillars. They hatch from egg masses already laid in the upper branches of the trees. If your tree is small enough you can find the half inch or so masses and remove them by hand. They look like small patches of dry gray or brown foam sitting on the bark. This coloring makes them blend in, so you will have to look. The perishers were so prevalent on Salt Spring Island two years ago the fall Apple Festival was cancelled due to the tree damage and ruined crops.

  6. Hi, Tom…it seems as if the ants are particularly abundant (and busy) this year! I must have cleaned a gazillion out of one of my hummingbird feeders yesterday…..tanglefoot is on the list now! Thanks!
    Neighbor Kate

    • Yike Sandra, hopefully the TSA will stop them at the border. Who am I kidding, I bet those little biting suckers are hitching a ride on the ferry as I type. 🙂 Thanks for the heads-up.

  7. You might consider a product called “coban” or vet wrap which is self adhesive but has a corregated surface which will hold the tangle foot. It would be a little more expensive but you will use less of it and don’t have to be so careful in your wrapping.

  8. thanks!!! great tip! I just felt really bad tonight because I killed an aunt I was afraid would climb on my bed and bite me. Horrible, wish we could just leave them alone and vice-versa. I am going to ask the gardener in charge what he does about aunts. I have not seen fire ants in Lebanon nor the ones you pictured, but I keep hearing of wawee, a sort of wild coyote. they roam in the mountains and kill chickens and other animals they can catch.

  9. My most vivid memory of ants was a horror book someone brought to school in elementary school about ants ganging up on and eating people. Of course, mainly we just read the sex scenes, but still a scary story.
    Our main ant control on the farm where I grew up was to soak the anthills in diesel and light it. Looking back, I’m not sure why we did that, but it was fun at least.

    • Ah Nicholas, you farm boys live on the edge. I stay away from matches and fuel. Once while burning my grandfather’s trash in a barrel (in the olden days, kids), I found out what happen when gin drippings meet a match: no arm hair or eyebrows for Tom. I better stick with less combustible solutions Nick, but thanks for the tip. 😉

  10. what a great idea; why didnt I think of it? I noticed a huge ant hill 30′ off of your driveway last spring or so. I hope you left it intact. It will keep getting bigger. Ants are good except on rare occasions.

    • Yep Tom, it’s still intact, bigger than ever. Thatch ants everywhere, tootling around every square inch. Usually not a problem, until my fruit trees bloom and when they set up aphid farms. The ants are here to stay, I just need to manage them on occasion to keep them off things I want to fruit or flower. Barriers seem to work well using that sticky tangly goo, they avoid at all costs.

  11. I final got rid of scale on my big meyer lemon tree by using tanglefoot at the base of the trunk because the ants also help farm scale as they work their way through the citrus trees.

    • Great tip Helen, I never thought to use it for scale. And since I have the same problem on my greenhouse citrus, you have now provided me with a new solution. Thanks!

  12. I have tried every insect killer on my lemon trees some sticky stuff but the the mess that it leave I tried nou for almost three season s white wash paint (new kalk lime) approximately R208 for 40kg at obaro and found no more ants moving up and down the tree as well as lies on the leaves, the only habit is after a few rains you have to paint it again

  13. Tanglefoot is very destructive to birds of all kinds. It gets on their wings, closing them and matting feathers. They cannot fly, find food or drink and either die a very slow death or become food for predator who then has problems with the goop on mouth, paws stomach etc. please be very careful, why not use Vaseline or something less critical? Thank you! (ASPCA info)

    • Hi Susan, thanks for the heads-up about tanglefoot, which is certainly a sticky mess when I get it on my gloves or hands. I’ve not experienced any bird fatalities or bird entanglement problems, but of course that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. I’ll look into this and hopefully find a better solution keeping ants off the trees. I’ve read where orange oil and/or vinegar repel ants, so maybe spraying that around the trunk would work. Thanks again, I’ll check out the ASPCA site, too.

    • Susan and Tom, I’m a bee keeper and have used tanglefoot at the legs of the tables on which my hives sit. They’ve literally wiped out young hive and made bigger hive abscond.
      One day I saw a baby lizard, stuck, right in the mess. It was very sad- and since then, I have a
      difficult time justifying it’s use- But the ants are just about killing my Noni tree, banana, goji berries, etc- they seem to infiltrate the roots of so many trees. I may try that orange oil and vinegar.

      • Stacy, I haven’t found anything stuck in mine, other than the ants, but I think this may be helping: 1) I’ve switched to green tape, which is not such an attractive or alluring color to blossom-seeking birds and critters; and 2) I’ve created a narrowed band higher up the trunk and leave at least an inch on each end clear of tanglefoot, only smearing in the middle of the tape. So far so good. And thanks for the Noni tree mention, I’ve never heard of it and had to look it up immediately. What a beautiful and unusual tropical tree. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morinda_citrifolia

  14. Hi Tom, we are in Charlotte NC with our Hosui Pears. Ant trains are traveling to the tips of branches on the tops of the young 9ft tall tree, and convening on the leaves; sucking, maybe? No fruit buds, we had a late freeze, but leaf buds. We use tanglefoot to prevent cankerworm infestations, and also have not SEEN bird injury. I’m not sure a bird has reason to be near a tiny diameter trunk, taped and sticky, and clear of branches for perching. Perhaps the nuthatch, but I don’t see them on silky smooth skinned trees. I certainly in all otherways try to CREATE habitat for the precious birds, so I don’t want to create a trap for them. Have you found an alternative solution to Tanglefoot?

    • Hi Lisa,
      The more I observe the ants the more I see specific behavior in them, as each tree type holds a different food interest for them. On cherry trees they cut off the buds completely; on plums they chew the pistil off to the base of the fruit; and on apples they devour the flower buds before opening. As for birds getting stuck in the tanglefoot, I’ve not experienced that, but I have taken new precautions to make sure it doesn’t happen.
      I no longer wrap the trunk in colors that may attract birds (blues, yellows, reds and oranges), and go with a strip of parchment paper secure by a thin piece of masking tape wrapped round it. I put the tanglefoot on the 1″ masking tape. This still works on the ants but only lasts one season in our rainy climate. But I find I just need this wrap in spring with the ants are ravenous for fruit tree blossoms and budding parts. Hope this helps, Tom

  15. Hate to tell you this but Tanglefoot is no longer available. They went out of business. Also, it did absolutely nothing. I lost all my flowers on my fruit trees to the ants this year. I have tried diatomatious earth, cinnamon, cayenne. None of it works. Has anyone tried Borax? Can it be used around fruit trees without harm to the trees? I have the same questions about vinegar?

    • Jan, the company is back and tanglefoot is back and available. Just do a search for “buy tanglefoot” and you’ll find plenty of suppliers. So to hear about the blossom loss, I know how that feels.

  16. It is available and I did a big mistake by applying it directly on a huge American Elm with loads of ants due to years of scale under previous owners– which I am now treating. The Tanglefoot was on for one day before I realized my mistake. I used baby oil and Goop Gone along with lots of pressured water– as noted on another site. Lots of it came off but do you have any other suggestions for complete removal? I am so upset that I did this.

  17. Tom, my mom has two fruit trees in her backyard, plum and peach. The peach tree looks dead. She is having severe ant problems. Can the ants actually kill the tree like that? If not, what should I spray the trees with to kill what ever it is that is eating them. The leaves all curled up & look weird.

    • Hi Lizette, sometimes ants can really weaken a tree by aphid farming, that is the tree becomes an aphid nursery that ants tend to feed on. It’s more likely the trees are diseased or weak from borers or another insect or fungus, like peach leaf curl. It’s hard to save them once they start the downward death spiral. I don’t spray my trees so I’m sorry I don’t have any advice to help you save the trees, if that’s even possible.

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