January 22, 2015

Fake ants on watermelon

A picnic isn't complete without ants. Credit: Kate Ter Haar / Flickr Creative Commons

Ants. Just the word sends people running from the picnic blanket. But Elsa Youngsteadt, a researcher at North Carolina State, says they aren't villains.

These insects are actually heroes in the fight against global warming, and that’s not all.
 
Ants don’t spread disease – unlike cockroaches and rats – and they clean up the streets, eating scraps of dropped food that would otherwise attract the real pests.
 
Youngsteadt traveled to Manhattan to study ants – more than 30 varieties live there – and determine exactly how they’re helping urban environments.
 
She and her fellow researchers put out bits of food in small cages – pieces of hot dogs, cookies, and potato chips – so that only ants and tiny bugs could get to it, not larger animals like rats or birds.

Based on the ants’ consumption within 24 hours, they projected that ants would eat about 2,100 pounds a year, “the equivalent of 60,000 hot dogs or 200,000 cookies” – just by consuming what was available on median strips around the West Side of Manhattan
 
We eat on the go, and there’s always going to be some crumbs and food that gets dropped. “If you have to pick who’s going to come behind you and eat the crumbs you drop, I think ants are the good ones to get,” says Youngsteadt.
 
But wouldn’t it be better if all those crumbs made it into the trash? Surprisingly no – and that’s where the global warming comes in, explains Youngsteadt. Waste sitting in a landfill generates methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.
 
Since ants might be New York’s best street cleaners, Youngsteadt hopes that they can be encouraged to thrive in the city. “If you’re going to have an area where there’s a lot of food trucks, put them in an area that also has a lot of habitat for pavement ants.”
 
While you may not want ants in your kitchen, research shows that they’re essential to urban environments – and could even be playing a role in saving the world.

Green, Elsa Youngsteadt, ants

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