By Jill C. Wheeler
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Thus ants, albeit quite unwittingly, bring about considerable changes in the physical properties of the soil, by increasing its porosity and improving drainage and aeration. As diggers and delvers, they may be not quite as good at these jobs as earthworms; but by being more widely distributed on the face of the planet, the total effect of their earth-moving and soil-renewing activity is probably equivalent to that of the worms. Ants do not only turn over the earth. They also drag scraps of vegetable material into their nests and accumulate refuse and excreta, the effect of which is to alter the chemical properties of the soil.
Gaines state quite categorically that these ants play a part in increasing the earth’s biodiversity. The other side of the coin, however, is that though harvester ants contribute to the spread of seeds, they also consume huge amounts of them. Experiments conducted in the deserts of Arizona have shown that, when the ants were eliminated, the density of annual plants quickly doubled. Similar studies have been made in Australia and, once the ants were removed, the number of young plants multiplied by ﬁfteen.
These ants manage to take about 260 million prey per hectare per annum, which is a boon to Mexico’s coffee plantations. One can understand why such greedy creatures have been recruited for biological combat: as long ago as the third century, the Chinese used weaver ants as forest rangers; and the idea has been revived in the twentieth century, in Germany and Italy, then in Canada, where wood ants’ nests have been introduced into forests where there were none. So wherever they go, ants leave their mark on the surrounding ﬂora and fauna.