March 22 (UPI) -- Ants are often thought of as pests, but new research suggests they offer a significant boost to soil health. Under most circumstances, farmers and gardeners should welcome their presence.
Researchers at Northwest A&F University in central China measured the effects of ants on soil samples and found their presence largely beneficial.
The maze of tunnels dug by burrowing ant colonies increase air and water flow in the soil. Their foraging activities also increase levels of organic matter.
Additionally, ants create a unique layer of mulch on the surface soil as they dig their burrows. The layer of excavated soil is called an aggregate mulch. The mulch acts like a protective layer, minimizing evaporation and helping the surrounding soil retain water.
"Minimal attention has been paid to the effects of ant activities on soil [water] evaporation thus far," soil scientist Tongchuan Li said in a news release. "Ants represent half of the global insect biomass."
Li suggests burrowing insects and other invertebrates could offer a natural boost to crop yields by protecting plants and their soil against dry spells.
Researchers published their analysis in the Soil Science Society of America Journal.
Aggregate mulch isn't perfect. It washes away when it rains. But scientists observed most ant colonies expanding their homes in the wake of each rain, creating a new layer of mulch.