A surprising insect could help solve the problem of agricultural pests

For most humans, ants are a nuisance. But while you might be worried about them nibbling on your meal, according to a new study, ants may actually help protect our food from other insect pests.

In a new study, researchers have found that ants can be a long-lasting method of pest control. The research was published Wednesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

“Our study encourages farmers to use more sustainable practices such as ant-provided biological control and shade cropping practices as a way to naturally promote ants in cropping systems,” Diego Anjos, lead author of the study and postdoctoral researcher at the Federal University of Uberlândia, tells Reverse.

What they found – The researchers analyzed more than 50 studies from around the world, focusing on papers that investigated the effects of ants on crop yield, plant damage and insect pest abundance. Studies have focused on a variety of crops ranging from coffee to citrus fruits.

The Results: These tiny ants can pack a big punch.

“Our new study found that ants decrease the abundance of certain pest groups, decrease plant damage, and increase crop yield,” Anjos says.

The humble ant is a more sustainable and less expensive form of pest control than traditional pesticidesGetty

Ants most effectively reduced the number of pests that don’t produce honeydew – a sticky sap that some insects release when they eat plants. These insects tend to spend more time in the ground, exposing them to ants, who gobble them up as a protein-rich snack.

On the other hand, ants weren’t so good for insects that produce honeydew – like aphids – and the presence of ants actually increased the number of aphids. Ants have a mutually beneficial relationship with these honeydew-producing insects and consume the honeydew they secrete. In exchange, the ants ensure the transport and protection of the aphids. Similarly, the ants also reduced the abundance of the pests’ natural enemies – such as parasitic wasps – which help reduce the pest population.

Although the ants had negative effects, the researchers say these impacts were far outweighed by the positive benefits to crop yield and pest reduction.

Ants reduced the presence of pests other than honeydew by 104% in crops growing in the shade. Insects were more effective at controlling pests in crop fields with greater plant diversity as opposed to monocultures – farms that plant a large amount of a single species. The creatures also reduced damage to crops, regardless of the type of pest feasting on the plant. Fruit flies, for example, avoid laying eggs in plants scented with ant pheromones.

“Overall, the mere presence of ants, regardless of body size, provided essential services for crops,” the researchers conclude.

Why is it important – It turns out that those pesky ants can actually match or even exceed the effectiveness of chemical pesticides.

Biological pest control is a method that advocates the use of pest enemies – such as ants but also spiders, birds, fungi and viruses – to control these insects naturally, rather than using pesticides artificial. They found that the ants continued to increase crop yield over time, avoiding the problem where insects develop long-term resistance to chemical pesticides.

“Biological pest control is generally better for the environment because pesticides can contaminate soil and water with chemical residues,” says Anjos.

Researchers are calling on farmers to plant more shade plants to “naturally encourage” ants in cropping systems. In short: Practices that allow for greater biodiversity and sustainability in agriculture will also naturally attract ants, which Anjos calls a “low-cost solution” to the massive pest problem. According to a 2021 study by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, agricultural pests cost the global economy around $70 billion.

“I believe the new generation of farmers are open and willing to use more environmentally friendly practices,” says Anjos.

And after – There are some limitations to the study since the paper mainly concerns ants as a whole and does not focus on specific species that can bring the greatest benefit to agriculture.

Anjo says future studies should consider factors that “may affect the role of ants in pest control in a changing world,” such as climate change and the status of ants as invasive species.

With these steps, we could one day see a world where nature’s humblest servants — not chemical pesticides — keep our food healthy and pest-free.