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Scientists: Tropical Ants Could Save African Crops

A group of agricultural scientists in African says tropical ants commonly found in Africa could save the continent up to 60 percent of its high value crops such as fruits and nuts that are consistently destroyed by fruit flies. For VOA, Gilbert da Costa has more in this report from Abuja.

According to a study published in the current issue of the Journal of Economic Entomology, African mango farmers could increase their harvests by as much as two-thirds with the help of weaver ants.

Paul Van Mele, a researcher at the Washington D.C.-based Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, and author of the study, says mangoes in Africa often fall prey to fruit flies which destroy about 40 percent of the continent's crop.

"About 2 million tons of mangoes are produced in Africa every year and about 40 percent of those are lost due to fruit flies every year," he noted. "I would say farmers across the board, if they apply weaver ant husbandry, could easily double farm yield for mango crop."

Fruit flies are so endemic in African mangoes that the United States has imposed an import ban to protect its own orchard.

Meanwhile, African farmers have very limited options in dealing with ravaging fruit flies. Chemical pesticides are expensive, and tend to have a negative impact on the environment.

Weaver ants have been used for pest control in China for several centuries. Van Mele says the technique is particularly suited for Africa since weaver ants are endemic to the mango-growing regions of the continent, and little training or capital is needed.

He says the first step is to increase awareness among African farmers.

"Many farms in Africa are not aware of the benefits of the weaver ants and hence they have never observed the positive effects," he added. "So, although the ants are available, the first issue to overcome is to develop a good communication strategy that farms can be aware of this gift of nature. The only input that is required in this system is knowledge."

Many African countries are currently experimenting with weaver ants as pest control with great results. In Ghana, the ants are being used to produce organic cocoa. Tanzania uses them to improve their coconut harvests, while farmers in Burkina Faso use weaver ants to control fruit flies.

The bonus, Burkinabe farmers are now able to market their mangoes as organic produce to eager European consumers, vastly increasing their income.