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Ants in the kitchen May 8th, 2016 by

E.O. Wilson (renowned biologist and the world’s expert on ants) says that when he gives a talk to the general public, the question they most often ask him is “What can I do about the ants in my kitchen?”

No topic is too small for discussion when it is close to home, and some people loathe being invaded by ants in the very heart and hearth of home. This is the answer which Professor Wilson gives them, words which he says come straight from his heart:

“Watch your step, be careful of little lives. They especially like honey, tuna and cookie crumbs. So put down bits of those on the floor, and watch closely from the moment the first scout finds the bait and reports back to her colony by laying down an odor trail. As a little column follows her out to the food, you will see social behavior so strange it might be on another planet.

Edward O. Wilson (2014: 94-95)

It’s a charming answer, but probably not quite what people want to hear.  I’ve been reading Wilson’s books on ants for years, and based on that, and personal experience, I have some practical advice for the ant-fearing public.

You can kill quite a lot of ants without doing the colony much harm. Worker ants spend their younger days at tasks inside the colony. At the end of their lives, worker ants become foragers, which is a dangerous job. That is why the ants send their oldsters to forage for food. When you kill ants, you kill the ones whose days are already numbered anyway. And there are many thousands of other ants at home ready to replace the ones you kill.

The best solutions are to separate the ants from their food.

Good housekeeping. Ants patrol constantly, looking for scraps of food. When they find a morsel they recruit others, and that is when you probably first notice them. You can frustrate the ants in your kitchen by sweeping the floor, and by wiping up crumbs and spills. And don’t take food from the kitchen to the rest of the house.

ant moatThe honey moat. Ants can’t cross water. Keep your honey jar sitting in a small dish of water. The ants will not be able to get to the honey. Change the water once in a while, because if honey is dissolved in the water, the ants will go to the edge of the water to drink it.

Glass jars or other airtight plastic containers provide a physical barrier. Keep sugar and other sweet treats in tightly closed jars.

Moving time. Ants follow a trail that leads from the food back to the nest. Once they are off the trail, the ants are hopelessly lost. If you set some food down and the ants get into it, and you want to get them out of your snack, just move the food to a different surface. The ants will leave, and wander around lost. It will take the other ants a while to find the treat again, and before the ants find your snack again, you should be able to eat it. If you are in a hurry you can gently tap the food as you move it around, which will send most of the ants running.

airtight sugarDeep freeze. If ants get into your sugared cereal, and you can’t bear to throw it away, put the whole box into the freezer. The ants will die. The brave at heart will still be able to eat the cereal. You will hardly notice the dead ants, plus they are good for you.

Don’t poison your children. If after all this, you still want the quick fix of instantly wiping out a whole ant column (that line of ants moving from nest to food), don’t reach for that can of insecticide. It is poisonous and it lingers on your kitchen counters. Plain, ordinary medicinal alcohol is absolutely lethal to ants, and safer for humans. Alcohol evaporates without a trace. It’s cheap and you can buy it at the drug store. You can soak a cloth with alcohol or pour it into a spray bottle, and squirt it onto the poor ants.

Even after you have out-smarted the ants in your kitchen, you may still see a few from time to time, tidying up a bread crumb you left behind, or carrying away that dead cockroach that you really don’t want to touch. Wilson says that humans can learn nothing from ants about living in large, modern cities. (After all, we have little in common with ants). Yet Wilson may be overstating his case. We should at least be able to learn to tidy up after ourselves.

Further reading

Hölldobler, Bert, and Edward O. Wilson 1990 The Ants. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Wilson, Edward O. 2014 The Meaning of Human Existence. New York: Liveright Publishing. 208 pp.

Apple blossom honey September 20th, 2015 by

When the Soviet Union broke apart, the collective farms of Kyrgyzstan were split up among the workers, with larger shares going to those who had worked the most years. Now, some 35 years later, the family farm is doing well.

My colleagues and I visited some of these farms near the eastern end of Lake Issyk Kul (“Warm Lake”) which never freezes in the winter, and has long attracted settlers to its sheltered shores.

talay lifts lidOne of the Kyrgyz farmers, Talay, is a veterinarian by training, and although he occasionally charges for advice on animal health, he makes a comfortable living as a smallholder farmer, on his three hectares of land. He has six cows, 26 horses and a dozen sheep, which all spend the winter in a warm barn eating the alfalfa that Talay has harvested for them.

In the summer the animals graze in the mountain pastures and later on the stubble of the harvested fields. It’s a better life for the animals than a factory farm. A modern milk plant sends a contractor to collect the milk for Talay and the other village households, providing them with a modest, but steady cash income.

The farm families have time for the occasional party, when a horse is slaughtered to feed the guests. Horse is good to eat, but the neighbors will speak more approvingly of a two-horse party.

bee polen trapTalay takes the most pride in his 26 beehives, nestled among his apple trees. “Bees and apples depend on each other,” he explains. The apples need the bees to pollinate them, and the bees need the nectar from the trees to make honey (50 kilos per hive per year, worth about $5400).

Talay gathers the honey three times during the summer. Each time, the honey is richer. His pure, dark honey is so well known that people drive six hours from the capital city, Bishkek, to buy it.

Talay also collects pollen from the bees. He puts a little trap with small round holes over the door of the hive. The bees scrape the pollen off their legs as they crawl home.

Propolis is a waxy stuff laden with antibiotics. Bees lay propolis down in the hive to preserve the honey. Talay scrapes up the propolis into greenish grey balls. It is expensive, but he gives most of it away to people who want to use it as medicine.

Nothing is wasted, not the wax, not even the bodies of the bees, when they die. Talay boils three tablespoons full of bees in a cup of water for a few minutes. He drinks the infusion, and says that it is good for hypertension. Talay also sells seven tons of apples a year (from 5800 square meters of orchard), and the family grows their own potatoes, wheat, berries and vegetables.

propolisOver lunch, of mutton stew, homemade bread, honey and jam, the family explained that their oldest daughter is a medical doctor. The second daughter is studying economics and the third is at an institute for foreign languages. The two youngest children are boys. Talay wants to give the farm to the older of the two, and then retire on the farm. It seemed like long-term planning, since the boy was only ten.

“What if he doesn’t want to be a farmer?” someone asked.  “He has already shown great interest in it,” Talay says, drawing the boy near.

I envied that little boy more than his successful sisters or anyone else in the room. It is no wonder that the family farm survived collectivization. The farm and the family are well suited to each other, like the bees and the apples.

Kiss of death in the cactus garden January 4th, 2015 by

It may be a slight turn off to learn that the sexy red color in lipstick comes from squished bugs, called cochineal. But wait, it gets worse.

Cochineal live on the prickly pear which is native to the Americas. Cochineal was grown in ancient times in Mexico and Peru, but much less so in Bolivia.

The soft-bodied cochineal or scale insects are so full of crimson juice that the insects look like berries, covered with a delicate white dust. The female cochineal barely moves during its lifetime, clinging like a tick to the leaves of the prickly pear. The needles of the cactus no doubt offer some protection from birds and other insectivores.

The colonial Mexicans dried the cochineal (like raisins) and exported them to Europe, to dye the red coats of the British army, among other gear. Synthetic dyes invented in the 19th century ended the cochineal trade in Mexico, but it lingered in Peru. Then in the late 20th century natural dyes became fashionable, and were now favored for food, cosmetics, and fabrics. Peruvian cochineal was back in business.

In South America, people love the prickly pear fruit, carefully peeled that is. The thick skin is full of nearly invisible hair-like thorns, called qhepu, in the native Quechua language, which are a pain to get out of your poor fingertips if you harvest the fruit badly.

One of my elderly relatives remembers a man he used to know, who would vanish when the prickly pear fruit came into season, living in the cactus groves and eating nothing but their fruit for weeks.

Then the party ended. From about 1987, when dried cochineal was selling for over $100 a kilo, NGOs encouraged farmers in Cochabamba, Bolivia, to raise the insect on local prickly pear stands, to harvest the cochineal and sell them for a profit. The prickly pear was native to Bolivia, but the cochineal was uncommon.

But by the 1990s the price of cochineal soon tumbled to as low as $17. The bugs were not worth the trouble to harvest, which was a pity, because by then they were everywhere. People had taken the cochineal to new areas that had been free of it. The cochineal then escaped from the cactus gardens where they were seeded, and became a pest of prickly pear in the valleys of Bolivia. Prickly pear cactus loses much of its fruit when bugs sip away its sap. We still eat some of the delicious fruit in Bolivia, but not as much as before.

Smallholder farmers tried getting rid of the cochineal with insecticide, but the cactus leaves are covered with a thick layer of wax, and the insecticide slips right off.

The cochineal market is a roller coaster. Only a few hundred tons of the dried bugs are sold worldwide. A bumper crop in Peru can swamp the market. If manufacturers shy away from chemicals, the demand for natural colors can soar. Or prices can fall when industry returns to synthetic dyes. Bolivian cochineal was rarely exported at all, apparently never able to compete with the established producers in Peru, which exports its entire production.

Development is full of stories of magic species that were going to solve all the poor’s problems: bamboo, gliricidia, and tilapia, among a few. Developers also hold onto some magic ideas that just won’t go away. One cherished myth is that smallholder poverty can be solved by exporting a commodity which they have never even grown before. The moral of the story is: start small; grow something you can eat and sell on the local market, before you try to export it. It would have been better to encourage families to grow the cactus for its fruit, which is good to eat and good to sell. After all, you can’t have your cochineal and eat your cactus fruit too.

Scientific names:

Cochineal (Dactylopius coccus)

Prickly pear (Opuntia spp.)


The NGOs that introduced cochineal to Cochabamba included Fepade (Fundación para el Desarrollo) and Tukuypaj (“for everyone”) and the Bolivian Export Foundation, with funding from the World Bank and the Dutch Government.

Six-legged livestock April 12th, 2014 by

When arriving on Mr Sawart Jaimetta’s farm in northeast Thailand, the first thing I notice are the many tools and parts of equipment that lay around the yard. Mr Sawart likes to fix most things himself and does not like to throw away things; one never knows when something will come in handy.

Various one-meter high speakers stand next to his house and Mr Sawart is busy unloading sound equipment from his pick-up truck. The night before he had played DJ at a local party. Close to the speakers, my eyes fall on some unfamiliar looking, plywood boxes that are neatly closed with blue mosquito screen. We soon learn that Mr Sawart and his sister are rearing crickets to sell as food at the market. They have 12 boxes in three different places around the farm house. Space is a commodity many farmers manage well.

Cricket farming in Thailand started in 1998 (Hanboonsong et al, 2013). The technology was developed by entomologists at Khon Kaen University and then disseminated to farmers across the northeast. Currently about 20,000 farmers produce 7,500 tonnes of crickets per year, meaning each farmer rears on average 375 kilograms of crickets per year or about one kilogram per day. Mr Sawart sells his crickets at 120 Baht (2.70 Euro) per kilogram. From egg to adult takes about 40 days, so rearing crickets gives him a quick turn over.

Many farmers in Thailand initially reared local field crickets, but then shifted to the domestic cricket Acheta domesticus imported from Europe and the USA. The knowledge farmers had gained on rearing local crickets could be applied to the new species. As in selecting crop varieties, a main reason for farmers to shift to another variety is taste. In this case, Thai consumers preferred the delightfully crunchy domestic cricket more than the local species.

Not even insects are safe from pests. The 1.2 x 2.4 x 0.6 meter plywood boxes are raised from the floor by four short wooden legs. Mr Sawart protects the wooden legs from rotting by putting them in plastic bottles cut in half. By placing the legs in small basins of water, ants are no longer able to crawl up the wooden legs and eat the crickets. Creative solutions for day to day problems.

As the crickets like to live in hollow, dark spaces, cardboard egg trays are placed one next to the other on the bottom of the cricket rearing boxes. Different colourful, plastic trays are placed on them. The ones filled with coconut fibre are used for egg-laying. Other trays contain concentrate feed for the early stages. Drinking trays have pebbles, so the insect will not drown in them. Mr Sawart gives banana stems to the adults.

Like many innovative farmers, Mr Sawart is eager to learn about new technologies and has found a way to fit it in with his other farming enterprises. While he earns his living mainly from cassava and rice, he likes rearing crickets, because it requires little labour and gives quick cash.

Reference cited

Hanboonsong, Y., Jamjanya, T. & Durst, P.B. 2013. Six-legged livestock: edible insect farming, collection and marketing in Thailand. FAO, Rome, 57 pp. Download manual.

For more news and information on edible insects, visit the FAO website Insects for Food and Feed.

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