Ant Armies In Agriculture

» September 2nd, 2015

A recent study found that ants offer a better form of agricultural insect control than chemical insecticides. If indeed true, this finding would appear to be excellent news for the prospect of veganic farming.  I therefore  find the idea very exciting.

With predatory insects, farmers could grow plants for people to eat without exterminating other insects with toxic chemicals–something that’s routinely done today, even in organic agriculture. The only catch here is that we’d have to breed and deploy insects such as ants to do the dirty work that the chemicals once did. They’d have to, in essence, set one insect species up to slaughter another.

This drawback is only a drawback, of course, if we are inclined to grant insects status as sentient beings. If we do that, we are under a clear obligation to treat insects with the same moral consideration as pigs, cows, and chickens.

As such, we could not condone an arrangement whereby insects are, for all intents and purposes, domesticated in order to serve us as forced armies in the vegetable patch and fruit orchard. True, the slaughter would be sort of natural, but still, we’d be in the position of rigging slaughter to serve human interests, something that animal rights activists typically find anathema.

Fortunately, there’s little convincing evidence that insects are sentient. I thus see this recent finding as yet another reminder of why we should not grant insects sentient status. The prospect of doing so undermines the more achievable goals that animal advocates are trying to enact for animals we know for sure to be sentient and demanding of moral consideration.




19 Responses to Ant Armies In Agriculture

  1. Anita Walsh says:

    I don’t know where a farming or gardening person could possibly live, that is devoid of its very own ant colonies. Leaving them alone would be a ‘just fine’ solution.
    O love ants, and their industrious nature. I find it so cute the way a grasshopper on my gate latch, which so often happens, slides around the other side of the latch to hide from me.

  2. soren says:

    A direct link:

    A very cool study but it focused on weaver ants and it’s not clear that their results will extrapolate as well to other crops:

    “Other less well-studied ant species are likely to show similar properties in other agricultural systems. The challenge is to find species that work well in a particular setting and subsequently to develop management facilitating their establishment and persistence. In addition, identification of IPM components compatible with beneficial ant species is needed to supplement their actions.”

  3. Jimmy Videle says:

    Hello James,

    Sometimes your posts drive me crazy. Spoken from a person who has never spend more than maybe a week in the fields observing insect populations and watching their actions. Of course insects are sentient…
    Just watch a dragonfly as it approaches, recognizes you and picks a fly from inches from your face and then backs away and blinks its eyes. Watch ants go about their business and watch as they help an injured mate back into the hole after suffering pain from hauling something that weighs up to three times as much. Get up close and personal with a hornet as she watches you rubs off her eyes and as you approach just gives you a warning pass, doesn’t sting just says back away from my babies. Watch a native sweat bee as she lands crawls thru you hair and drinks the salty perspiration from your arm. Walk thru a patch of buckwheat flowers and let all the honeybees, bumbleebess, wasps, native bees and others go about their business while you pass through.
    And this is only what I can quantify, I am not a bee and thus do not have bee knowledge, I am not a dragonfly and thus do not have dragonfly intelligence.
    My favorite however is watching a whole colony of ants make it to their nest whole and seal it shut minutes before a pummeling thunderstorm. Ant brains.
    Breeding ants? to cause a disruption of the balance in the garden. Maybe we can breed killer armies, that will decide that when they are done they can attack us, because they have eaten up all the rest of the food chain, for say the spiders, ladybugs, green lacewings, praying mantis, toads, frogs, lizards, birds….etc…
    Oh yeah, not only have I been an organic farmer for 11 years, this is my first year being veganic, which means, yeah no sprays, but mostly no animal fertilizers, manures, blood, bone, feather and fish emulsion. Just for your information…
    Have you been to a veganic farm?

    • James says:

      If you believe that insects are sentient then I assume that you have methods to protect insects attracted to your crops from being killed by predators? If not, then you aren’t you luring sentient creatures to their death by planting certain seeds?

      Naturally, I know the answer to this, but I’m just trying to reiterate how high the stakes for even veganic ag when we grant insects sentient status. All the examples of insect behavior you note are fascinating, but none of them in any way confirm sentience. In fact, plants exhibit many of the same reactions you note.

      And, wait, you think hornets look at your babies and choose not to sting them?

    • James says:

      Oh, and I spent 5 years writing a book on insects and insect control. Why do you assume I know nothing about the topic? And if you did really assume that then why on earth waste your time on my site?

      • Jimmy Videle says:

        When you wrote your book on insects how much time did you spend in the field personally observing them? Ok continuing on…
        Are people that are on death row not sentient, if they were innocent and wrongly convicted are they not sentient, aren’t we also marching those people to their death? Are people enslaved not-sentient?
        Sentience is only the fact that a species can experience the five senses and are aware. Insects absolutely are aware, just because science hasn’t proven it, maybe the fact that there is no funding to following the same dragonfly around for 6 months to understand completely its habits. I think as human beings we spend too much time thinking we understand certain concepts, when nature is just being.
        And no I do not think a hornet is looking to sting my baby. They have no reason too, unless the baby decides to grab and play with the hornet.
        Something to consider is that while we continue our human pressures on the earth, with clearing land, animal agriculture and development we are forcing nature into an ‘adaptation’ and infringing on their habits.
        Maybe plants are also sentient, perhaps their roots are a nervous system. Maybe if we tried to understand the natural world a little better, we would understand just how little we need to survive. Vegan farming offers a better way of agriculture for the natural world, and yes we kill insects and plants in the process, but it is minute in comparison to animal agriculture, large organic agriculture and absolutely large conventional agriculture.

        • James says:

          You final comment directly confirms so much of what I’ve been arguing: we live in a world defined by suffering and have a choice to situate ourselves on that continuum of suffering; we should situate ourselves in order to reduce suffering as much as we possibly can; veganism is one way to to do this, and a great option to the extent that it can be achieved; but because the suffering that we confront is on a continuum, and because veganism is inherently unachievable (especially if you consider insects to be sentient) in our industrialized world, then we cannot declare veganism to be a be-all-end-all moral baseline. I should note that this is where people get defensive and angry, but what I’m suggesting is that we actually go beyond veganism and explore ways to to include vastly more humans in the effort to move humanity in the right direction on that continuum. I think vegans forget or just are unaware how deeply resistant otherwise caring people are to veganism and I want to take that resistance seriously. As it now stands, with the declaration of all the absolutes inherent in veganism, as well as the inability of vegans themselves to achieve those absolutes, it may alienate more compassionate people than it attracts. I suspect that the deep resistance to this idea is rooted more in the identity benefits that vegans get from being vegan than anything else, but I could be wrong.

    • soren says:

      can you explain why using (and breeding) beneficial insects would necessarily cause less “exploitation” than dousing plants with “organic” pesticides or using mechanical methods to remove pests?

      i’m not a fan of veganic farming because it does not acknowledge the exploitation associated with “farming” habitat to grow food. i would like to see more vegans support ultra-dense cultivation that uses sustainable chemical nitrogen inputs. given our inevitable need to move to a carbon-negative economy, i fully expect to see more of our food grown via ultra-dense technology-driven agriculture (greenhouses, hydroponic facilities, urban vertical farms).

  4. TYR says:

    Just two articles of probably many one can find if one searches for “insect sentience”

    Here they are: “Research suggested that bigger animals may need larger brains simply because there was more to control. More nerves were needed to move bigger muscles, for example.

    Much ‘advanced’ thinking could be done with very limited numbers of neurons, the scientists claimed.”


    “Insects may have consciousness and could even be able to count, claim experts”

    “Cockroaches Live in a Democracy”

    There’s quite a growing amount of evidence that insects are sentient but even on the level of personal experience I would say that that are sentient. Whether we believe they are or not, we should do our best not to harm them. It’s just a matter of nonviolence. We should avoid intentional harm wherever possible but short of living in a cave and eating nettles, it’s very difficult not to cause unintentional harm to insects.

    In relation to veganic gardening: I don’t believe in using insects as hired assassins. I don’t see anything nonviolent or vegan about using insects this way. Many may disagree, but that’s my feeling on it.

    • Mary Finelli says:


      Washington Post, Rachel Feldman, December 12, 2014

      “We know that humans and other primates can’t always just rely on these reflexes. Reaching for a morning cup of coffee — or catching a ball — requires incredibly sophisticated calculation. One must have an internal image of their own body in space, calculating both the movement of their body towards an object and any movement of the object itself. That’s why running to catch a flying football is no easy task.

      ‘Algorithmically, it’s exactly the same kind of process a human is going through,’ Leonardo said. ‘When you reach to pick up coffee, you’re solving the same problem as the dragonfly.’ So the underlying neurological circuitry will probably have something in common. ‘The hope is that studying this system will help us learn a lot about humans.’”

      Cal Tech, Jessica Stoller-Conrad, May 14, 2015

      “‘These experiments provide objective evidence that visual stimuli designed to mimic an overhead predator can induce a persistent and scalable internal state of defensive arousal in flies, which can influence their subsequent behavior for minutes after the threat has passed,’ Anderson says. ‘For us, that’s a big step beyond just casually intuiting that a fly fleeing a visual threat must be “afraid,” based on our anthropomorphic assumptions. It suggests that the flies’ response to the threat is richer and more complicated than a robotic-like avoidance reflex.’”

      Current Biology (Volume 21, Issue 12, p1070–1073), Melissa Bateson, Suzanne Desire, Sarah E. Gartside, Geraldine A. Wright; 21 June 2011

      “This finding reinforces the use of cognitive bias as a measure of negative emotional states across species and suggests that honeybees could be regarded as exhibiting emotions.”

      We are continually learning new and surprising things about the capabilities of insects and other animals, things that disabuse us of long-held faulty notions about them. It’s only relatively recently that science has shown fish to be sentient. It would be very presumptuous of us to claim that insects aren’t sentient, and we would do so at their expense. Many plainly exhibit distress. That is reason enough to not cause them intentional harm. We can’t draw a definitive line. We have no way of knowing where it would be. What we do know is that there are sentient animals. We don’t know any plants to be sentient. That is a clear, easily understood division, one that leaves a decent buffer for error. It’s the sensible place to draw a line.

      • James says:

        I get that there are studies suggestive of advanced cognition in insects, and I keep up with them, but given the pragmatic implications of insect sentience–essentially humans having to throw our arms and give up on the realistic possibility of ever arranging our lives to dramatically reduce animal suffering—I choose to require more concrete evidence of insect sentience.

        • TYR says:

          Why not just do your very best not to harm them? Size in this case really doesn’t matter ;-)

          • soren says:

            Studies of wasp species indicate that CNS size correlates well with sensory-cognitive capacity.


            There is a long-term consensus that when it comes to cognition, CNS size matters.

            In fact, I’m willing to give some insects benefit of the doubt. Some wasps have nervous systems that may approach

          • soren says:

            Should be:
            I’m willing to give some insects benefit of the doubt. Some wasps, for example, have nervous systems that may approach a level of complexity consistent with minimal sentience. However, given the number of vertebrates killed by conventional farming, I’m not particularly concerned about the possibility of minimal sentience in insects.

      • James says:

        From the fruit fly article:
        Insects are an important model for the study of emotion; although mice are closer to humans on the evolutionary family tree, the fruit fly has a much simpler neurological system that is easier to study. However, studying emotions in insects or any other animal can also be tricky. Because researchers know the experience of human emotion, they might anthropomorphize those of an insect—just as you might assume that the shooed-away fly left your plate because it was afraid of your hand. But there are several problems with such an assumption, says postdoctoral scholar William T. Gibson, first author of the paper.

        “There are two difficulties with taking your own experiences and then saying that maybe these are happening in a fly. First, a fly’s brain is very different from yours, and second, a fly’s evolutionary history is so different from yours that even if you could prove beyond any doubt that flies have emotions, those emotions probably wouldn’t be the same ones that you have,” he says. “For these reasons, in our study, we wanted to take an objective approach.”

        - See more at:

    • soren says:

      Those media pieces have the same breathless content-free tone as pieces that promote twilight zone plant-sentience research. Moreover, neither of those mass media pieces address sentience and the language used is silly. A simple counting neural network is is hardly evidence of sentience and certainly not “consciousness”.

  5. TYR says:

    PS: I do my best to save and protect insects wherever possible.

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