Farm Your Yard: Insects That Farm

Dec 28, 2015

This installment of Farm Your Yard originally aired November 3, 2015.

Halloween 2015 is becoming a distant memory. I am not ready, however, to let go of telling spooky scary stories, so I’ve got one for you today. To most people, the spookiest thing about organic gardening are those weird, bloodless, six legged, multi-eyed creatures who go creeping around your cherry tomatoes all season long. I am talking about bugs.

Ants are farmers, too. In this installment of the occasional series Farm Your Yard, host Carrie Hargrove talks about the agricultural tendencies of the ants your your garden.
Credit Flickr / Michael Jagendorf


And it’s true: they don’t have blood: look it up online, you’ll learn something amazing. But, you know, I love bugs. Like, really love bugs. Like, I have been known to spend whole summer evenings sitting under a porch light so that I can watch an orb spider catch it’s pray and tend to its web. And yeah, I know spiders aren’t bugs, but I think you get me point.

I honestly don’t understand why science fiction buffs spend so much time dreaming up alien civilizations in outer space, when for most of us, there are alien civilizations all around us-insects-under our feet, crawling up a tree truck, living in that crack in your driveway. Most people don’t know anything about the amazing and strange life of the insects that share our homes and our gardens, but what they could learn would shock them.

Today, I am thinking about ants, and how in some incredible ways they aren’t so very different from us humans. Here are two words for you: Ant farm. What is the first thing that comes to mind? I bet you came up with one of two images: 1) If you are my age of older a little plastic cage where you can keep some ants and watch their activities; or 2) If you are currently a pre-teen, a show on the Disney Channel (that I didn’t even know existed until I Googled “Ant Farm” to see what Google thought I meant). Well, there is a secret option number three: an ant farm. Meaning, a farm where the farmers are ants.

Different ants have different kinds of farms, but the farmer ants I see are shepherds. Yes, ants at my farm have their own livestock. They feed, protect, and herd other bugs like aphids. What gets me about this is that they herd. For whatever reason, the fact that they herd tiny livestock is really mind boggling to me. I have seen this every single year that I have worked at the Urban Farm. Sometimes these tiny livestock farms have come at a detriment to me, but mostly I just think they are really cool.

The reason why ant farmers can be unwanted in a vegetable garden is because the livestock they are tending, while nutritious and delicious to the ants, are insects that cause damage to the plants I am trying to grow. Talk about turf wars. Fortunately, this farmer vs. farmer problem usually doesn’t flair up, because there is something else- another bug, alas- on my side.

Just as human shepherds curse the lonely coyote for sneaking away with a member of their flock, ant shepherds experience the same headaches. Except instead of wolves or coyotes, an ant’s worst farming enemy is the ladybug. Ladybugs love the sweet taste of aphids just as much as ants do. Ladybugs are also essentially little tanks that more or less get what they way in the insect world. Ants have yet to invent anything like a fence to keep these cute red and black varmints out of their aphid herds, which is all for the better for me and my own selfish agricultural endeavors.

I have seen ants tending their aphid herds on pole beans, on my milkweed plants, and in our Virginia creeper vine. This past year, I saw lots of ants and their livestock on the sunflowers that we planted for the bees. Ladybugs are never far away.

Even more amazing than the fact that ants actively farm for the benefit of their colonies, is how long they have been doing it. It is estimated that some species of ants that practice agriculture have been doing so for over 5 million years. Humans, by contrast, have only been farming for about 10,000 years.

Things like this make me wonder: when humans finally hit upon the series of tasks and patterns that transformed a seed into a plant, and then began to recreate those patterns, everything about human civilization changed. We could stay in one place, we no longer had to be nomadic. Agriculture is more efficient than hunting and gathering, so overall, farming saves a group of people lots of time. Art was impossible before farming, there was no time for that kind of self-expression.

Herein is where my wonderment lies: did that same cultural evolution happen for ants 5 million years ago when they realized that the secretions from an aphid’s rear tasted sweet, and that they could save a lot of trouble by just exploiting that knowledge? I mean, if ants farm, what else are they doing there under the wood chips at my farm?

It is like bizzaro world, it sounds like the plot of a science fiction novel.  If Alfred Hitchcock were privy to this information, he probably would have written a clever psychological thriller about the chilling similarities between ant civilization and that of humans.

Of course, I knew none of this until I started gardening and paying attention to the whole world that a healthy, robust garden becomes every spring, summer and fall. I’m still a gardening newbie. I am excited to learn more about the natural world with every gardening season. For someone like me, a backyard garden becomes a classroom, a classroom where natural history really comes alive. Literally, it comes alive, and I witness amazing things first hand.

Maybe that’s why insects and spiders don’t scare or intimidate me anymore, through gardening, I have come to know and understand them. Only the unknown is scary. I started this episode of Farm Your Yard promising a scary tale. The tale is not so much scary as downright amazing. It is amazing that I worry about the safety of my chickens, when there are a whole host of hungry things that want to eat them, and sometimes do. That same concern for the wellbeing for my livestock is felt by something 500 times smaller than me.

It makes you realize that all things are a lot more similar than you might have initially thought. And that is one heck of a life lesson that gardening has taught me.

Carrie Hargorve is the host of Farm Your Yard. She is the Farm Manager for the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture. More information about the Center is here and here.

Farm Your Yard is an occasional feature heard on the KBIA program Thinking Out Loud.