A study published in Nature has found that ants and termites increase access to water for dryland crops, increasing wheat yield by 36%.
Dryland crops are crops grown without irrigation. Since they rely entirely on local precipitation, every little bit of water helps.
The study was performed on a farm in Australia. The farm had been practicing conservation agriculture – reduced tillage, direct drilling for seeding, and other practices that leave the soil mostly in place while growing and harvesting crops.
After the soil was treated with termites and ants, soil moisture at 50 cm depth after a rain was triple that of fields without ants and termites. Water at that depth was measured because it is less likely to evaporate and more likely to stay available for plant roots.
Termites and ants help to create soil structure through their digging that allows plants’ roots to access water that is deeper down in the ground. The digging also increases water infiltration after a rain, thereby reducing runoff.
In cooler, wetter regions of the globe, earthworms perform this same function. Scientists have long wondered what fills the niche of the earthworm in warmer, dryer climates.
Some species of ants destroy crops, but many don’t. Protecting and encouraging those species that help the farmer clearly makes a large difference in the size of a crop harvest.
Ant photo via Shutterstock