Mangoes in Africa, as elsewhere, often fall prey to fruit flies, which destroy about 40% of the continent's crop. In fact, fruit flies are so common in African mangoes that America has banned their import altogether, to protect its own orchards. African farmers, meanwhile, have few practical means to defend their fruit. Chemical pesticides are expensive. And even for those who can afford them they are not that effective since, by the time a farmer spots an infestation, it is too late to spray.
Agricultural scientists have also looked at controlling fruit flies with parasitic wasps. But the most common ones kill off only about one fly in 20, leaving plenty of survivors to go on the rampage. Lethal traps baited with fly-attracting pheromones are another option. But they, too, are expensive. Instead, most farmers simply harvest their fruit early, when it is not yet fully ripe. This makes it less vulnerable to the flies, but also less valuable.
Farmers whose trees are teeming with worker ants, however, do not need to bother with any of this. In a survey of several orchards in Benin, Dr van Mele and his colleagues found an average of less than one fruit-fly pupa in each batch of 30 mangoes from trees where worker ants were abundant, but an average of 77 pupae in batches from trees without worker ants. The worker ants, it turns out, are very thorough about hunting down and eating fruit flies, as well as a host of other pests. Worker ants have been used for pest control in China and other Asian countries for centuries. The practice has also been adopted in Australia. But Dr van Mele argues that it is particularly suited to Africa since worker ants are endemic to the mango-growing regions of the continent, and little training or capital is needed to put them to work. All you need do is locate a suitable nest and run string from it to the trees you wish to protect. The ants will then quickly find their way to the target. Teaching a group of farmers in Burkina Faso to use worker ants in this way took just a day, according to Dr van Mele. Those farmers no longer use pesticides to control fruit flies, and so are able to market their mangoes as organic to eager European consumers, vastly increasing their income. The ants, so to speak, are on the march.