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December 30, 2010

Ancient Chinese ant remedy could help pest-control in Africa

by Devapriyo Das

Low-income farmers in Africa will be among the first to benefit from a pilot project that borrows from a centuries-old Chinese farming "technology."

Researchers from Aarhus University, Denmark, plan to use weaver ants to protect mango and cashew-nut tree plantations from pests.

Every year, African farmers lose large parts of their mango and cashew-nut harvests to attacks from harmful insects such as fruit flies. They often also spend heavily on costly pesticides to control these pests.

"It's very difficult to use conventional methods to kill these fruit flies," said Mogens Gissel Nielsen, Associate Professor in Biological Sciences at Aarhus University, who is managing the weaver ant project.

"But it looks like they can be scared away by the ants," the expert said in a telephone interview.

The idea is an old one. For centuries, Chinese farmers have combated pests by placing colonies of weaver ants in their fruit trees. The ants -- which are very aggressive -- will attack and eat any insect which lands on the tree's leaves or fruits.

Now, Aarhus University has received a 1.3-million-euro (1.73 million U.S. dollar) grant from the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA), to refine this idea and make it commercially viable for African farmers.

Commencing in January 2011, the project will facilitate research into biological pest control methods in Benin and Tanzania, as well as develop model farms and train farmers in both countries to use ants in organic farming.

Mango and cashew-nut are valuable cash crops. By using weaver ants, and thus avoiding costly and sometimes harmful pesticides, farmers have a better chance of selling their fruit to the lucrative organic foods market in Europe and the United States.

As using wild weaver ants could upset natural eco-systems, Aarhus University researchers earlier this year found a way of breeding weaver ant colonies by capturing fertilized queen ants from the wild.

"To avoid too much impact on the natural fauna, we chose to 'rear' colonies of ants that can be released directly in the plantations, rather than collecting colonies that were already established in the surrounding countryside," Nielsen explained.

Rearing ant colonies could eventually become a commercial venture run by local farmers.

As weaver ants are rich in protein, researchers believe commercially farmed ants could also be harvested as a food source for poor farm households.

"It's a high protein source, that you can harvest in an area where there is low protein available," Nielsen said.

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