• For Safer, Cheaper Pest Control, Just Add Ants

    September 2, 2015 | Blog | Brett L
  • Weaver ants can not only protect tree crops from pests, but may also benefit the quality of produce. (Photo: Rushen/Flickr)

    Sometimes ants are pests, marching through our kitchens on an industrious quest for crumbs. But when faced with more serious pests — namely those that destroy crops on which people’s livelihoods depend — we can also use ants to our advantage.

    Published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, a new research review suggests ants can control agricultural pests as efficiently as synthetic pesticides, with the bonus of being more cost-effective and generally safer. And since many pesticides pose a danger to helpful wildlife like birds, bees and spiders — not to mention humans — ants might be a key ally in feeding the planet’s booming human population.

    The review covers more than 70 scientific studies on dozens of pest species that plague nine crop varieties in Africa, Southeast Asia and Australia. Because ants are organized as “superorganisms” — meaning the colony itself is like an organism, with individual ants acting as “cells” that can move around independently — they are uniquely capable of hunting down pests and then overwhelming them.

    “Ants are great hunters and they work cooperatively,” says author Joachim Offenberg, a biologist at Aarhus University in Denmark, in a press release about the research. “When an ant finds its prey, it uses pheromones to summon help from other ants in the nest. By working together, they can subdue even large pests.”

    Most studies in the review focused on weaver ants, a tropical genus of tree-dwelling ants that weave ball-shaped nests using leaves and larval silk. Since they live in the canopy of their host trees, near the fruit and flowers that need protection, weaver ants have a natural tendency to control pest populations in orchards.