Country Matters: Tiny but brilliant creatures are better than pesticides

I have patiently watched ants for a long time in their agricultural practices, endlessly busy cutting and transporting plants to sustain the farms that produce mushrooms for a living. Leaning over fences atop cliffs on Portugal’s Atlantic coast, I watched endless processions of insects moving along well-worn paths, to disappear underground and re-emerge to collect more leaf fragments from a distant source. Such lives of endless work seem endless.

His leaf-cutter kind works continuously to keep their mushroom farms in production. The ants subsist on fungi growing within their ants or colonies, fed on leaf fragments which are further broken up by a separate team of stem cutters before being laid out in “gardens” to be tended by another crew.

There is a careful attitude: if one leaf source turns out to be poisonous, the ants immediately move to another. Source locations can be as much as 300m away, but like snails, the insects follow a scent trail established by the original surveyors. Individual ‘soldiers’, separated from the ever-moving lines, keep a lookout for intruders who might steal the crops. Colonies can also be raided and resident insects enslaved. Within the anthills, reigning queen ants — which can live up to 15 years — rule colonies of 100,000 to 500,000. The largest was found in Switzerland in 1977, where 300 million people lived in 1,200 anthills criss-crossed by 60 km of trails in the Jura Mountains.

Most of us have had unpleasant encounters with red and black ants in this country.

In Africa there is a species called the Matabele that has remarkable human-like traits, rescuing wounded comrades on termite battlefields. If an ant can only stand on one leg after a fight, it is carried away to have its wounds tended to by “doctors and nurses” to fight another day. Frail victims, however, are left where they fall.

A recent scientific report suggested that “ant power” may be more efficient than chemicals in crop production. The ants are better at eliminating pests, reducing damage and increasing yields. An analysis published in Proceedings of the Royal Society studied 17 crops in several countries and found that some ant species, when properly managed, had similar or greater effectiveness as pesticides – and at a lower cost.

But ants can also become a problem with mealybugs, aphids and whiteflies. They produce a sugary substance called honeydew that ants are attracted to and “breed” like livestock. However, researchers say alternative sugar sources can be used to distract the ants so they continue attacking the other pests.

There are more ants than any other insect in the world, some 14,000 known species, accounting for about half of the Earth’s biomass. They are incredible creatures. Country Matters: Tiny but brilliant creatures are better than pesticides

Fry Electronics Team

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