Weaver ants increase cashew yields by 150 percent

Cashew nut farmers in Kenya can now increase their yield by up to 150 percent by incorporating the humble weaver ants in their cashew fields a new study has shown.

The weaver ant, the study reveals, is key in offering protection to the crop from the sap sucking insects like leaf miners and thrips which can wipe up to 80 per cent of yields.

This has emerged as one of the cheapest and safest biological weapons against a cluster of pests that have ravaged cashew farms and taken the blame for being among the reasons for the dwindling fortunes of the crop.  The weaver ants target the pests’ larvae ensuring that reproduction is hampered.

Scientists from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture IIATA, in a report published in the Journal of Agricultural and Forest Entomology indicated that yields in cashew fields grew by up to 78 per cent when weaver ants were introduced to cashew fields in a study in Benin. The quality of the nuts was also enhanced.

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According to the lead scientist Jean-François Vayssières, in an earlier interview, cashew plants with weaver ants crawling on them were found to have 78 per cent to 151 per cent more yields than those without the weaver ants. Vayssières who has conducted numerous earlier studies on the behavior of weaver ants on various pests and diseases including the voracious fruit fly, noted that the weaver ants had pheromones which they used to attract pests. The ants, the researchers added, also fight the pests by either releasing special excretions that repels the pests, taking the insects as prey or by just being around a plant which automatically scares off the pests.

The research could offer key insights to the Kenyan cashew nuts that have been in the doldrums due to poor prices and varieties that are susceptible to pest attacks.

Kenya’s cashew production, which is concentrated in the Coast region, has been performing below par in what has been attributed to poor policy intervention and overall neglect. This, even as demand for the cashew regionally and internationally soars.

For example, approximately 10,000 tonnes of the nuts are produced each year in the country with a market value of Sh264.9 million even as records show that the country can comfortably produce over 63,000 tonnes each year earning Sh1billion.

 Low prices have seen farmers cut down the cashew crops, replacing them with other lucrative crops like oranges and horticultural produce. Nut varieties some introduced decades ago have become susceptible to diseases and pest attacks which have equally had a toll on yields with farmers reaping almost nothing from the crops.