The Ants that Protect Coffee
The small species that is protecting the indispensable coffee plant
Coffee is a ubiquitous daily beverage - we drink more than 400 billion cups every year! Coffee fuels our energy, our ideas, and our daily lives and also employs more than 20 million families from the farm to the cup. Coffee typically grows in warm, tropical and subtropical climates throughout Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The coffee plants are long-lived shrubs that thrive under the shade of a tree canopy filled with tropical forest and fruit trees. Farms with a large supply of trees not only produce our beloved black gold, but these shade-coffee farms also can harbor hundreds of species of plants and animals - our biodiversity.
Ants are one important component of this biodiversity. There are more than 25,000 species of ants, and ants are among the most abundant tropical animals representing at times more than half of the animal biomass in a tropical rainforest. In coffee farms, one group of ants -- cavity or twig-nesting ants -- actually live inside the hollow branches of the coffee shrubs. Small beetles bore the holes, and once hollow, the ants move in with their queens, workers, and brood. Scientists have documented more than 40 species of ants living inside of coffee twigs. Although ants sometimes get a bad rap for stinging or biting humans, these twig-nesting ants provide us huge benefits because they feed on and control some of the most important pests of coffee, protecting those highly valued beans just for us.
To learn more, visit the Philpott Lab Webpage
by DR. STACEY PHILPOTT,
PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL STUDIES, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA SANTA CRUZ