rethink sustainability

Ants: the hidden multi-trillion-member workforce that support multi-trillion dollar industries

Ants nurture and protect one of our most productive environmental and economic systems: our forests. And they never take a day off.

When you look at forests in terms of Natural Capital—Earth’s stock of naturally occurring resources—you’d be forgiven for thinking that the story begins and ends with trees. After all, our trees provide many of the vital ecosystem services that support our way of life: from extracting carbon dioxide from the air, to air filtration and enabling the evaporation on which the water cycle depends. Although we take such services for granted, our economy would be brought to the verge of collapse if they were to disappear. However, from seed to stump, our trees themselves in turn depend on the work of a hidden workforce: ants.

 

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Keepers of the forest

It all starts with a mound of dirt. An anthill is made of mineral soil excavated by thousands of worker ants in the process of building the underground colonies they call home. This makes ants one of Earth’s leading manufacturers of the topsoil trees need. Ants produce soil up to ten times faster than earthworms: as much as 13,500 kilos per acre per year, resulting in around four inches of new soil every thousand years1.

Ants are also one of the primary re-distributors of nutrients in forests, a process vital to forest health. In the lowland tropical rainforest of Sabah, Malaysia, researchers found that ants, in carrying food back to their nests for consumption, were responsible for 52% of nutrient redistribution—the largest contribution of any animal2. Crucially, this means that ant soil is packed with nutrient-rich, ant-produced fertiliser and is close to pH-neutral, so it makes for outstanding compost. Thus, a tree seedling that finds itself growing in ant soil will have an advantage that will last for the rest of its life.

Ants produce soil up to ten times faster than earthworms: as much as 13,500 kilos per acre per year, resulting in around four inches of new soil every thousand years

As trees grow, many ants also serve as their guardians by hunting herbivorous bugs that would otherwise prey upon trees. And in tropical forests, the mutualism between trees and ants can go even further. Here, trees are often preyed upon by bugs that feed on their sap—a problem that can prove fatal, especially for young trees. In response, many trees employ ants as their protectors. For instance, in Central America, bull-horn acacias have evolved to secrete sugar and protein-rich foods—ideal for ants—in hollow structures that ants can call home. In return for food and shelter, ants actively guard the tree against herbivorous bugs and even prune any vines that might otherwise engulf it.

Even with the help of ants, all trees must eventually die. And when they do, ants are there to help return their nutrients to the soil, ready to nourish the next generation of trees.

The economic, societal and environmental contribution of ants

Our forests, then, could not survive without ants. And neither could the multi-trillion dollar industries that depend on forest biodiversity for the resources we need to make products including bioplastics, biochemicals, bioenergy, naturally-derived pharmaceuticals and, of course, timber. Managing our forests sustainably and ending deforestation may further increase the role of our forests within our society, as we transition away from heavy-polluting materials towards more nature-based materials and a circular bioeconomy.

Ants don’t just make an economic contribution. With air pollution generating around USD 3.5 trillion in annual health costs3, ants also serve as the foundation of the clean air generated by our soils and trees. They also support forests’ ability to act as a vital carbon sink: between 2001 and 2019, the world’s forests absorbed a net 7.6 billion tonnes of CO2 per year—1.5 times more than the annual emissions of the United States4. In other words, trees—and, therefore, ants—are one of our greatest assets in our journey toward net zero emissions as we strive to mitigate climate change.

…trees and ants are one of our greatest assets in our journey toward net zero emissions as we strive to mitigate climate change

Forests in decline

Our current Wasteful, Idle, Lopsided and Dirty—or WILD—economic model is placing much of our Natural Capital at risk. And, despite ants’ best efforts, that includes many of the world’s forests.

Due primarily to changing land-use driven by economic concerns, forestland declined by 3.8% globally between 1990 and 20185. The problem is particularly acute in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), where forestland declined by 4% between 1995 and 20146.

Besides the obvious loss of trees, deforestation has a significant impact on the biodiversity that is so crucial to the value of our Natural Capital, which captures the stock value of our natural resources and the ecosystem services it supports. For instance, Amazonian deforestation is fragmenting and destroying the habitats of many species, including those of big cats and other large mammals of high conservation value. Many of these species depend on “primary” old-growth forest. Although mammals can eventually fully repopulate secondary forests, the process can take decades or even centuries7. Such losses are of incalculable environmental and economic significance.
 

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Towards an economy that works with, not against, our ant workforce

Fortunately, Europe has proven that the situation is not irreversible. In the year 500, forests covered around 80% of western and central Europe. By 1350, the rise of agriculture had brought that coverage down to 50%. In Germany alone, forest coverage went from 70% in 900 to 25% in 1900. And yet, the 20th century saw the kind of agricultural expansion that is decimating the forests of Brazil begin a significant reversal in Europe that has continued to accelerate. Here, an area of forest larger than Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Switzerland combined grew back between 1995 and 20158.

Economic development is an essential part of the European story. Unlike a country such as Sweden, whose forests doubled in size over the past century9, LMICs such as Brazil are endeavouring to lift significant portions of their populations out of poverty. Supporting the economic development of such countries would enable more people to move away from the kind of jobs that depend on deforestation, and support alternative approaches to land use management that are more precise and less destructive than traditional ‘slash-and-burn’ methods10.

Supporting the economic development of [LMICs] would enable more people to move away from the kind of jobs that depend on deforestation, and support alternative approaches to land use management that are more precise and less destructive

In tandem with supporting economic development in LMICs, a specific focus on sustainable forestry globally would both speed up the rebound of forests in high-income countries and slow deforestation in LMICs. In turn, this would ensure that they begin to rebound long before LMICs reach the level of deforestation that occurred in Europe before the 20th century.

Since the destruction of our forests also harms our ant workforce, reducing deforestation and increasing reforestation would give ants a chance to recover, both in terms of numbers and diversity of ant populations. This would also clear the way for wider implementation of sustainable forestry practices designed to promote biodiversity of ants and other vital forest species. As ants in different regions are sensitive to various kinds of forest management and disturbances, such practices will vary depending on the region. For instance, in tropical forests, disturbance or past forest management usually results in less diverse ant communities. Meanwhile, in temperate regions, forest management practices can be beneficial to ants when they lead to a less dense forest structure with reduced canopy cover and a warmer forest climate11.

To protect both our forests and the ants that support them, then, we must accelerate the transition from our WILD economic model to one that is Circular, Lean, Inclusive and Clean: what Lombard Odier calls the CLIC™ economic model . The CLIC™ model would work with, rather than against, our ant workforce by creating a sustainable circular economy. Such an economy would harness the latest technological innovations to ensure that we use our Natural Capital—including our forests—in a way that delivers the economic growth that LMICs like Brazil need without depleting our precious natural resources.

Ants are integral to maintaining our forests, one of our most precious sources of biodiversity and a vital asset in our journey toward net zero emissions

To support the transition to a sustainable circular economy that protects our forests and the valuable resources they provide, Lombard Odier has launched a Natural Capital strategy that will enable investors to support companies whose business models leverage the regenerative power of nature. Lombard Odier believes that this transition is inevitable, which, in turn, means that these are the companies that offer the strongest potential long-term returns for our clients.

Ants are integral to maintaining our forests, one of our most precious sources of biodiversity and a vital asset in our journey toward net zero emissions. It’s time to start working with the ants, not against them.

 

Ellison, A. M. (2014) Ants and Trees: A Lifelong Relationship, American Forests. 
Griffiths, H. M. et al. (2018) ‘Ants are the major agents of resource removal from tropical rainforests’, Journal of Animal Ecology, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, vol. 87, no. 1, pp. 293–300. DOI: 10.1111/1365-2656.12728.
OECD (2014). The Cost of Air Pollution: Health Impacts of Road Transport, Paris, OECD Publishing.
Harris, N. L. et al. (2021) ‘Global maps of twenty-first century forest carbon fluxes’, Nature Climate Change, vol. 11, no. 3, pp. 234–240. DOI: 10.1038/s41558-020-00976-6. (This equates to 17.6% of annual carbon emissions based on Lombard Odier calculation.)
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2021) ‘FAOSTAT Statistical Database’, FAOSTAT. 
World Bank. (2018). The Changing Wealth of Nations 2018: Building a Sustainable Future.
Shellenberger, M. (2020) Apocalypse Never, London, HarperCollins.
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2021) ‘FAOSTAT Statistical Database’, FAOSTAT. Cited in Shellenberger, M. (2020) Apocalypse Never, London, HarperCollins.
Gray, A. (2018) ‘Sweden’s forests have doubled in size over the last 100 years’, World Economic Forum. 
10 Andelaet al. (2017) ‘A human-driven decline in global burned area’, Science, vol. 356, no. 6345, p. 1356. DOI: 10.1126/science.aal4108.
11 Grevé, M. E. et al. (2018) ‘Effect of forest management on temperate ant communities’, Ecosphere, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, vol. 9, no. 6, p. e02303. DOI: 10.1002/ecs2.2303.

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