Ants – A Farmer’s Secret Weapon or Achilles’ Heel?
For most of us, the sight of these curious six-legged creatures typically means that you’ve left some sweet treats on the countertop or perhaps you’ve made a poor choice for your picnic spot. With over 12,000 species around the globe, ants come in various shapes, sizes, and defense mechanisms. To grasp how prevalent ants are, consider the fact that researchers believe ants account for around 50% of the global insect biomass. Although the general public often views ants as nuisance pests that don’t provide much more than an interruption to a good time, farmers have long considered the possibility of these small armies serving as a beneficial tool. That’s why we’ve decided to take a look at the role of ants in commercial agriculture to determine if they should be considered allies, enemies, or a little of both.
Giving the Bad News First
As we will discuss later, ants maintain a surprising amount of potential positive impact for farmers, but their presence isn’t always a welcome addition for an agricultural operation. Although ant colonies can provide some beneficial aspects, they can also cause some collateral damage along the way — similar to humans. Let’s explore some of the potential problems farmers should monitor for when ants are detected in the fields.
Pest Farming & Protection – Many ant species, like the Argentine ant, are known to tend or farm several types of homopterans, which are sap-sucking pests like aphids, scales, and mealybugs. The reason that ants farm and protect these problematic sap-sucking pests is because they produce a favorite food of ants — honeydew. Honeydew consists of excess sugar and water byproduct from plant juices that are excreted by sap-sucking insects as they feed on plants. In this symbiotic relationship, ants often provide protection from natural predators of the sap-sucking pests and in return, can feed on their waste byproduct. In fact, sometimes ants will go as far as to assist some of the more immobile honeydew producing pests to fresher regions of a host plant, further spreading an infestation.
Impact on Native Species – In some cases, ants can have a negative impact on native species, leading to ecosystem disruption. For example, in Southern California, the previously discussed Argentine ant is known to push out native species like the harvester ant. This can quickly lead to a disruptive situation as harvester ants are the only acceptable food source for California’s Horned Lizard.
Direct Crop Destruction – For nut crops, ants can be a direct pest. Often feeding on the nut meats which can lead to significant crop damage if a sizable colony settles in your fields undetected.
Human & Livestock Risks – Chances are high that you’ve experienced the pain of an ant bite or sting. While the occasional run-in serves as more of a nuisance, there lies an actual danger for both humans and livestock if an entire colony is disturbed. Considering the average fire ant colony can house up to 500,000 workers, unknowingly disturbed colonies can result in significant stings that could require medical attention or in extreme cases, could even lead to death.
So, What’s the Pros of Ants and Farming?
Although the list of cons may initially dissuade a farmer from entertaining the idea of co-existing with ants around their crops, these little creatures also come with some impactful benefits.
Natural Pest Control – Sure, ants may protect some honeydew producing pests, but if you’re concerned about the presence of certain caterpillar species, grubs, chinch bugs, termites, and ticks, then you may want to reconsider banishing ants from your fields. That’s because several ant species actually prey on these pests, helping keep the population to a minimum. This isn’t a new pest management method. In fact, records indicate that Chinese farmers were using ants to protect against pest as far back as 1200 B.C. A 2022 study even suggests that in certain agricultural applications, some species of ants may have an equal or higher efficacy than commercial pesticides.
Soil Conditioning – The underground tunnels and nest systems created by ants can provide a similar effect as mechanical soil aeration, allowing water and nutrients to better permeate the soil, thus reaching your plants easier. Additionally, ants have been shown to also provide extra nutrients to the soil as they remove organic debris from their colony. Of course, all things in moderation as too much of this natural aeration can actually have a negative impact by preventing nutrients or targeted pesticides from reaching the root zone of the plant.
Bioindicators – Researchers suggest that ants can serve as indicators of metrics like soil quality and pest presence. Of course, technologically advanced soil testing equipment and autonomous pest monitoring systems will almost always provide a better understanding of your soil condition or pest presence. That said, the presence of ants — or lack thereof — can at minimum, serve as a redundant monitoring tool.
Ants can be IPM Friendly – IPM or integrated pest management is a practice that focuses on sustainable pest control methods — check out our article on IPM. A 2015 study looked at the role of Weaver ants in agricultural pest control and found that the presence of this species decreased pest populations, plant damage, and ultimately led to increased crop yields.
Although the verdict varies when it comes to a commercial farmer’s decision to eradicate ants or let them stay, it is safe to say that the decision should be made after identifying the species. Once identified, if the species is known to have an innocuous or indifferent impact, then the grower may want to assess further by monitoring. Ants are often misunderstood, typically leading to immediate treatment measures being taken quickly after a colony is discovered. As farmers begin to adjust to the dawning era of sustainable agriculture, they’re recognizing that rash decisions like eliminating ants upon sight should take a more calculated approach.
In many situations, farmers may immediately suspect the presence of detrimental pests upon spotting an ant colony, but this isn’t necessarily the case. Supplemental tools like FarmSense’s award-winning FlightSensor, which is an autonomous pest monitoring device, can significantly improve the accuracy, timing, and prevention measures by providing farmers real-time actionable information surrounding pest presence in their fields. If you would like more information about FarmSense or to be considered for their 2023 free FlightSensor trial program, visit here. Until then, we recommend speaking with your local pest control advisor (PCA) or agricultural extension program to determine how — or if — you should deal with ants on your farm.