Ants, termites boost wheat yields

March 30, 2011, University of Sydney
CSIRO scientists counting termite tunnels under one of the plots of the study. Credit: Theo Evans, CSIRO Entomology, Canberra

( -- In an exciting experiment with major implications for food production under climate change, CSIRO and University of Sydney scientists have found allowing ants and termites to flourish increased a wheat crop's yield by more than one third.

The study, carried out on a farm in an arid area 100 km northeast of Geraldton in Western Australia, showed and termites help improve water infiltration and levels. Effectively they play a similar role in dry climates to earthworms in wet climates.

"The areas of the farm where we didn't apply pesticides produced a 36 percent higher yield of wheat than the control area," said Dr. Nathan Lo, from the University of Sydney's School of Biological Sciences, the co-author of a paper published today in Nature Communications.

"There are two main reasons we think this has happened. Firstly, the termites and ants create a lot of tunnels under the soil when they forage away from their nests, and this helps water absorption. This is particularly important in dry areas where rain is very sporadic.

"Secondly, bacteria in termite guts are able to fix significant amounts of nitrogen from the air. Some of this nitrogen is transferred to termite tunnels, helping to improve plant growth."

Dr. Lo said the results were exciting as they promised to reduce the need for increasingly expensive and environmentally harmful petroleum-based products such as herbicides, pesticides and fertilisers.

"The number of arid farming areas, particularly in a country such as Australia, promises to increase as a result of . To find out that ants and can increase in this way is a really exciting result."

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not rated yet Mar 30, 2011
Does this mean that the ants will be swarming the field? If so, how does a farmer harvest his crop in this condition? Will he be needing a suit to keep the ants out? Could someone who knows more about this topic explain?
not rated yet Mar 30, 2011
Fascinating results, and ones that show the integration and balance produced over aeons by the creative hand of selection (if you'll pardon the anthropomorphism).

But everyone in my family was a farmer or grew up on a farm two generations back and I've heard them talk several times about how the fire ants in east Texas hurt the crops. I wonder how they meant that.
not rated yet Mar 30, 2011
Yea they did not mention which kind of ant was there
not rated yet Mar 30, 2011
itdrexel - I am just a back yard gardener - but I have ant colonies all over my property - most of them perfectly harmless - they sometimes start biting if you sit right on the nest - but you just get up and move. I am sure that a farmer using heavy equipment would not be bothered by ants in the field. Some varieties of ants are more aggressive (fire ants in southern u.s.) - but I don't think they would attack a moving tractor.

not rated yet Mar 30, 2011
If they could make the ants carnivorous they wouldn't need pesticides or fertilizer.
not rated yet Mar 31, 2011
I'm curious what exact ant they're talking about, and which precise termite. It makes sense mechanically, for a field of wheat. But in my backyard polyculture in Northern California, US, the argentine ants can wreak havoc. Left unchecked by me they would've eaten all the wild bird's forage, my food, everything. They were even attacking and killing foraging native bees at one point, until I started baiting them and disrupting their nests and aphid and scale farms. Local natural predators couldn't keep up with the ant destruction.

I've also heard of formosa termites destroying wild mushroom habitat.

Perhaps the ants and termites are useful, albeit suboptimal, in a severely disturbed land type monoculture? Kind of like invasive weeds are better than bare dirt?

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