When it comes to agricultural pest control, check with nature first. You’ll find surprising biological solutions that can be more strategic than bringing out the big-gun insecticides. While chemical insecticides are indispensable to large-scale farmers, they also have the negative side effect of wiping out other, good-doing insects, such as ants.
Ants get a bad rap as uninvited guests at picnics and inside homes, but they are unsung heroes when it comes to keeping crop-destroying insect populations in check.
Ants Are Organized as Superorganisms
Individual little ants don’t strike us as ruthless predatory hunters, but their power is in numbers. Ants are actually considered superorganisms, meaning that an entire colony counts as one vast organism! This is the superorganism’s “superpower”—it can act as a unit and gang up on its prey.
Ants are native to every continent on the planet (except Antarctica) and are considered to be the most successful kind of land-dwelling animal in the world. In fact, ants are so populous that it is estimated that their combined mass is similar to that of the entire human species.
How do thousands of tiny ants organize themselves so effectively? The answer is in their chemistry. They emit and receive special pheromones that act as communication between individuals. Watch out for organized ants—once they call for support with their pheromone signals, enough backup shows up for the superorganism to overtake much larger insect pests.
Weaver Ants Help Tropical Orchards
The weaver ant, a tropical variety of ant, lives in treetops and builds its nest way up in the canopy layer of the forest. Their treetop location puts them in a great position to protect the tree’s flowers and fruits from other pests. Likewise, they are just as handy in tropical orchards, where farmers take nests from the wild and re-establish them in their orchards. Farmers even connect the nests from tree to tree with string or twine that the ants use as walkways. This method has been very effective on cashew and mango farms.
Ants vs. Chemicals —Which Is Better?
Are tiny little ants to be trusted with the hefty task of controlling pests on commercial produce farms? Recent scientific studies are promising. A study in Australia showed that cashew yields were up to 49 percent higher in the plots of land under ant control, compared to their chemically-controlled counterparts. Another study of Australian mango cultivation indicated that yields were similar between the two groups, but using ants is more profitable because it’s a lower-cost method, and the produce quality is higher.
Farmers considering ants as an integrated method of pesticide should dig deep into information and training before jumping on the superorganism bandwagon. As a low-tech solution, it’s worthwhile to find out if ants could be better for your produce production and better for your bottom line.