Nyeri farmers fight fruit flies and thieves with red ants

Farmers in Nyeri are using red ants to wade off voracious fruit pests, cutting fruit loss by upto 60 percent and keeping thieves at bay, in a model that has succesfully worked in Vietnam having saved the economy $1million yearly.

This comes at a time when most of the farmers are grappling with exorbitant pesticides that have also been blamed for poor yields due to their toxic effects on the fruit quality. Scientists wowed by the farmers' discovery are also studying the ants behaviour in bid to roll out the discovery countrywide.

Fruit flies, one of the notorious insects and every fruit farmer's nightmare, is responsible for more than than four-fifths of mango losses in Kenya. But the farmers in Nyeri chanced on the natural pest control method when all hope seemed lost. Having invested a fortune in buying synthetic insecticides to no luck,which also affected the fruit quality due to constant spraying, the farmers gave up on orchard farming.

But one farmer didnt. Meshack Makira who grows mangoes, citrus and passion fruits noticed that in one area of his farm which was heavily concentrated by the red ants, the fruit trees looked healthy and the fruit quality juicier. And observing the trend in a trial and error basis he was convinced the ants played a part in keeping the flies at bay. “I noticed that the ants loved crawling in orange branches, so I cut some branches and placed them on the mango and citrus fruit trees, and when I woke up the next day the fruit flies I had tried to use all pesticides on, were all gone. I did it continuously for over a month before getting convinced that there were the cure I had been looking for,”Makira said.

It is a discovery that has inspired other farmers to rescusitate the once blossoming orchard farming in the area. “We had given up on fruit farming because nothing seemed to work. We had spent thousands on dissapointing pesticides. But when Makira brought us together and we actually saw on his farm how the ants were doing wonders we decide to try farming again,”said Bereta Wakiyu another farmer.

It is a decision that has paid off for the likes of Bereta who is now expecting over 100 kgs of mango, and 50kgs of tangerines from her quarter acre farm. “Even when the fruit fly menace was that intense and we could control them through insecticides, the fruit harvest wasnt this impressive because I was managing a quarter less of what I now get,” Bereta.

But the farmers have also taken time to watch the red ants' behaviour to ensure they get as many of them in the orchards. One way has been through feeding them with chicken and cow intestines. Red ants are attracted to the smell of intestines and flock around the source of the smell. In an arrangement with butchers, the farmers buy the intestines at a subsidized rate and hang them in fruit trees. “It is a very cheap arrangement compared to how much we used to spend on insecticides. A bottle of the cheapest insecticides used to cost around Sh800 and we could only use it once in quarter of an acre.A kilo of the intestines go for Sh100 which we use for upto 5days,”said Makira.

The farmers also say the red ants have also kept off bats and thieves who have equally been every farmers' nightmare in the area. Due to the bumper harvest, thieves pounce at night and harvest the fruits which they sell to local markets. But an attack by the red ants has dettered many of them. “We arrested two one night when we had screams after they were attacked by the tiny creatures. We took them to the police,”added Makira.

The scientists marvelled by the discovery are now doing studies in a bid o understand the efficacy of the ants in controlling the flies that have cost farmers and the country billions in revenue. “We are working with the farmers to understand the pattern of the fruit flies and their feeding mode. We have so far learnt that they seem fond of feeding on caterpillars, an interesting move that could assisting in cutting the reproduction of the flies,”said Athanaus Kiongo a scientist in Nyeri.

But even as the scientists get to work, in Vietman the red ant phenomenon in farms has been succesfully tried and tested. Farmers sparingly use pesticides in orchards and there is even a breeding ground for red ants where farmers purchase them to put in their farms. The vietnamese government estimates that the county has saved over $100 million every year since the introduction of red ants in farms in early 2000.

Written by Alice Muriranja for African Laughter