Ants are better than pesticides for sustainable farming, new research finds

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Two European red wood ants are pictured in a forest near Birkenwerder, northeastern Germany. (Patrick Pleul/AFP via Getty Images)
Two European red wood ants are pictured in a forest near Birkenwerder, northeastern Germany. (Patrick Pleul/AFP via Getty Images)

You might want to leave those pesty little ants in your garden alone.

New research says the tiny creatures are more effective than pesticides in helping farmers grow bountiful crops. The study examined 17 different crops including mangoes, citrus, soybeans and apples, and discovered ants will hunt the pests attacking the food.

For Adam Hart, entomologist and professor of science communication at the University of Gloucestershire, the news wasn’t shocking.

“I spend quite a lot of time persuading people that there's more to [ants] than meets the eye,” Hart says. “Although they may be a bit annoying at times, they actually have an amazing kind of use throughout the environment.”

Ants eat a number of insects found on plants such as scale insects, tiny bugs that feed on a plant’s sap. While ants can eat aphids, research showed they prefer to encourage the sap-sucking insects. Ants look after aphids and eat the honeydew they produce after feasting on plant sap. It’s a dangerous balance, Hart says.

There are other potential risks, too. There are at least 14,000 known species of ant, and while some can be good for a garden, not all are. Fire ants, for instance, can spread rapidly and change an area’s ecology, Hart says. And not every agricultural system will benefit from ants.

Still, it could be feasible for farmers to use ants rather than pesticides. Hart calls for more integrated solutions for pest management and for researchers to learn more about how ants can lend a helping hand.

“If we can come up with these integrated methods where we can take advantage of natural systems, we can take advantage of the fact that ants can be really, really useful,” Hart says.

Samantha Raphelson produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Gabe Bullard. Jeannette Muhammad adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on August 30, 2022.

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Peter O'Dowd Senior Editor, Here & Now
Peter O’Dowd has a hand in most parts of Here & Now — producing and overseeing segments, reporting stories and occasionally filling in as host. He came to Boston from KJZZ in Phoenix.


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Samantha Raphelson Associate Producer, Here & Now
Samantha Raphelson is an associate producer for Here & Now, based at NPR in Washington, D.C.


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Jeannette Muhammad Freelance Associate Producer, Here & Now
Jeannette Muhammad is a freelance assistant producer for Here & Now.



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