Environment

"Ants on the plants" might protect crops from diseases

"Ants on the plants" might pro...
Wood ants foraging within an apple orchard
Wood ants foraging within an apple orchard
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Wood ants foraging within an apple orchard
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Wood ants foraging within an apple orchard

Although some gardeners may be put off by the sight of ants on their flowers, a new study indicates that the insects can be very effective at protecting crops from diseases. It's even being suggested that ant-derived antibiotics could be applied on a commercial scale.

Ants live in crowded colonies where they're constantly in close contact with one another, potentially allowing for the quick spread of disease. For this reason, they secrete antibiotics from glands on their body, plus they also cultivate colonies of antibiotic-producing beneficial bacteria on their legs. Those antibiotics may in turn get transferred onto plants.

In a previous study, it was found that when wood ants moved into an apple orchard, there was a notable reduction in two bacterial plant diseases – namely scab and apple rot. Inspired by this finding, researchers from Denmark's Aarhus University looked through other scientific literature, uncovering evidence that ants may inhibit at least 14 such diseases. On average, throughout the various studies reviewed, the presence of ants reduced pathogen levels by 59 percent.

"We don't yet know how the ants cure the plants," says lead scientist Joachim Offenberg. "But we do know that the ants secrete pheromones on their trails on the plants to find their way. And we know that some of these have antibiotic properties. The curing effect on plant diseases could be due to these pheromones."

And while it's unlikely that ants will ever be commercially "milked" for their antibiotics, it is nonetheless now hoped that manmade solutions based on those antibiotics may someday be applied to crops, providing an eco-friendly means of limiting the effects of harmful bacteria.

A paper on the research was published this week in the journal Oikos.

Source: Aarhus University via EurekAlert

7 comments
christopher
Passionfruit leaves each have a pair of glands for feeding ants - it appears the ants help control insects on them too, and maybe also help pollination.
LindsayCrawford
We clean ants off our citrus as they ‘farm’ aphids. Google 'ants farm aphids’.
Douglas Rogers
How do they keep the ants from destroying the tree?
Signguy
Ahhh, to work in harmony with creation...
neoneuron
Maybe some ants are good. And some ants are not?
ljaques
This is the way of nature, Grasshoppa.
Worzel
Some Ants also eat pests. In Singapore, local to me, there was an epidemic of some particular caterpillars, that concentrated on one particular type succulent flowering plant, burrowing into them, and destroying them. The only plant that survived was close to a palm tree that was inhabited by ants, who carried dozens of caterpillars up the tree into their nest. A visit to the Singapore nature reserve revealed dozens of types of ants, from singular large versions about the size of a wasp, to tiny, almost invisible versions. There was also a type that built tiny tunnels from mud, perhaps 5 mm across, but enormous in comparison to the ants size, over paths and open spaces, perhaps to hide from predator birds.