Ants may help farmers in weed management

A team of multi-disciplinary researchers from the Universitat de Lleida, Spain and Penn State University found out that Messor barbarus or harvester ants help farmers with weeding.

According to Barbara Baraibar Padro, a postdoctoral scholar at Pennsylvania State University, these ants naturally live in the fields and they remove weed seeds from farms. The team studied the relation between the tilling of the farm and the number of ants and the distribution and sizes of their nests. They compared four (4) tilled fields and three (3) no-till fields for this experiment.

There were no differences in the number of ant nests, but burrows are smaller in tilled lands. This will have an impact on weed management because ants from larger nests would till more than smaller ones. Distribution of nests also differ between tilled and non-tilled fields. Nests are more evenly distributed in non-tilled lands, unlike tilled fields. Tilling might have destroyed some nests, leaving some areas with no ants to remove weed seeds.

In Spain, farmers till the land twice. Once in fall as preparation for winter planting and once during the summer, which Baraibar said, might not be needed. Farmers need to conserve water and maintain soil quality and tilling less will help. It would also lessen expenses on fuel and labor and will also aid the ants that consume weed seeds. These ants prefer rigid ryegrass, a type of herbicide-resistant weed species, another help to the weed management of the farmer. Right timing of tillage can help the preservation of the weed-seed eating ants as well as the preparation of the seed bed.

This research was funded by the Spanish National Research and Development Program and the Department of Agriculture, Food and Environment of the Catalan Government.

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