TNB Night Owl – Bacteria

Bacteria isolated from the root system of a popular tree. Photo by Oak Ridge Lab.

If I have a natural enemy, it’s fire ants. Their bites sting (painfully) and often itch until they heal. One especially vicious devil stung me deep on the middle knuckle of my left index finger nearly twenty years ago, as I vividly recall. That one itched for at least five full years. No, I’m not exaggerating, not even a little, although I should add that the itching was intermittent, not continuous. (I wouldn’t want to mislead anyone).

Maybe twelve years ago, there was a fire ant colony in my yard. That wasn’t unusual, in fact it would be unusual if there were no fire ants inhabiting my domain. However, this colony had popped up in the most inconvenient spot where our Border Collies and I played Frisbee most every day.

The nuisance ant nest was next to the driveway, right where the dogs laid and waited their turn to chase and catch. (Only one pup at a time was allowed to run after a thrown Frisbee, the others had to lay still and wait until they were called. Border Collies are ridiculously easy to train if you give them a job and make it fun and exhausting for them). The ants had to go. Given my antagonistic history with the six-legged stinging little monsters, I was more than happy to plot their demise.

Using insecticides, or any kind of chemicals on the lawn was out of the question for the sake of the dogs. But, somewhere online I read that ants could be eliminated without using toxins, by pouring boiling water on the nest. Which I did. Which is how I learned that bacteria are important.

Everything in about a one foot diameter circle where the boiling water was dumped, died. All the grass turned brown overnight and disappeared, leaving bare dirt. Nothing grew there for a long time, to my surprise, and by ‘a long time’ I mean months. It was Spring or early Summer: perfect growing weather for plants. Surely something should have grown there. But nothing did, for months, not until late Summer.

This was puzzling, but with a little research I learned that pouring boiling water into the ground kills everything in the organic layer, including the beneficial bacteria which lives in the soil. There’s a zone called the rhizosphere where plant roots are found. Bacteria living in the rhizosphere have a symbiotic relationship with plants. Plants need nitrogen or they die. Paradoxically, plants cannot easily absorb nitrogen. With a process called nitrogen fixation, bacteria have the ability to change nitrogen gas into ‘nitrogenous compounds’, which plants can easily absorb. Clearly, the plant gets something it needs. What about the bacteria? The roots of a plant naturally secretes sugars and proteins, and also shed dead plant cells. It just so happens that bacteria love the taste of sugars, proteins, and dead plant cells, so it’s win-win for all participants.

Later, I learned that humans cannot survive without the hundreds of beneficial bacteria species (our microbiome) living in our intestines, which produce vitamins K and B12 (cobalamin), folic acid, and biotin among other things that we need to survive, but our bodies cannot make. Like plants, we cannot live without our bacteria partners.

The three most important things I’ve learned from these experiences, are:

  1. Respect bacteria, life cannot exist without them.
  2. Antibiotics can look suspiciously like boiling water, with similar results. Don’t use more than absolutely necessary.
  3. Don’t be arrogant enough to believe you can kill an ant colony with a pot of hot water – they probably just relocated to a better neighborhood.

Question of the night: What’s itching you?

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About Richard Doud 622 Articles
Learning is a life-long endeavor. Never stop learning. No one is right all the time. No one is wrong all the time. No exceptions to these rules.