The concept of beneficial ants in agriculture may seem like a contrary notion, as growers have historically viewed ants as a nuisance in their production systems. Ants can be valuable for agricultural production in some instances, although more work will be required to better emphasize their beneficial qualities.
“It’s definitely more of a counterintuitive perspective. I think most people and most growers see ants as pests,” said Madison Sankovitz, Ph.D. Candidate at UC Riverside. “My research is mainly centered around examining how ants are beneficial to soil and soil ecosystems.”
Sankovitz likened the benefits that ants can provide to those produced by earthworms, aerating the soil to provide deeper penetration of oxygen and allowing for better infiltration of water. “Ants also cycle nutrients through soil. They bring insects and other plants into the nest area. They eat part of it, but the discarded remains stay in the soil and decompose in the soil,” said Sankovitz.
Several studies have been conducted evaluating the positive impact that ants can have in agricultural systems. One study that Sankovitz highlighted showed that in fields with ants and termites, wheat crops increased by 30 percent compared to those that did not have the insects. “There have been a handful of studies showing that ants can increase crop yields through these main soil processes and it’s just sort of a matter of controlling the ants in a way so that they stay in the soil and are beneficial to the soil,” said Sankovitz.
In places such as Asia and Australia beneficial ants are actually cultivated as biological control agents to allow for better production of citrus. Further research in California will be needed to fully harness the value of ants in agricultural production while preventing the negative impact that ants can have. “I think it’s something that scientists should pay more attention to in the future; ways of controlling ants so that they’re beneficial in areas where we want them and they’re controlled on the leaves where we don’t want them,” Sankovitz noted.