Social insects raise crop yields

An Australian Monomorium works the soil.

In case we needed yet another example of how insect societies make things happen on our planet, here’s a striking result from Australia:

Wheat plots with broadly similar yields skew dramatically when some are deprived of ants and termites. Adapted from Evans et al Fig 2.

Researchers found that wheat yields dropped 36% in plots experimentally deprived of ants and termites.

36%.

That’s simply astounding. The severity of the effect amazes even me, and I’m as dedicated an ant cheerleader as they come. Crop scientists spend years tweaking ag fields to inch yields up a couple percentage points, and here are some insects that can bump yields by the double-digits. Talk about Ecosystem Services.


source: Evans, T.A. et al. Ants and termites increase crop yield in a dry climate. Nat. Commun. 2:262 doi: 10.1038/ncomms1257 (2011).

9 thoughts on “Social insects raise crop yields”

    1. I expect the aridity is part of it, too. The researchers seem to think so. I also wonder if there were other, unmeasured effects of pesticide on the treatment plots. It’s definitely a study worth replicating in other areas.

      Still, even if the ant/termite effect was only a third as big as Evans measured, it’d be news.

      1. One would expect that natural systems would evolve to maximize biological productivity. This is, of course, in the evolutionary interests of each of the community members. Even if we humans have trouble discerning that fact and typically tend to disrupt and simplify communities to our own detriment, the obvious conclusion remains.

        Simply consider the awesome fisheries and terrestrial “standing crops” of North America at the initiation of European discovery and exploitation. Fisheries so vast that the fish were used as fertilizer for Maize, passenger pigeons that darkened the sky and took days for the migration to pass, etc. Their food sources now feed bacteria.

  1. This reminds me of a National Geographic program I saw once, in which folks in a droughty central African location (blanking on details at the moment) spread straw on their fallow fields, knowing that soil termites would harvest it, believing it resulted in greater tilth, fertility and moisture-holding during the planting season.

  2. Ants r cool. Im an advocate too. a lot of people dont care about insects though 🙁 unless u tie them into human wellbeing!

  3. That is an incredible result! That means that in order to compensate for the loss of the ants and termites, crop productivity would need to increase by nearly 60%. And they are called “pests.” Absurd.

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