By Aldo de la Mora, Ph.D.
If you like drinking coffee, like I do, then you can thank ants for helping keep coffee farms healthy and productive. My name is Aldo de la Mora and I recently started working as the assistant director at the James San Jacinto Mountains Reserve (James Reserve).
I study how insects interact with each other and their environment as well as their importance to ecosystems. Before I worked at the James Reserve, I studied ants as a Ph.D. student on coffee farms in the mountains of southern Mexico.
Coffee is a shrub, but it is not just any shrub. Like many bushes we unknowingly hike past, coffee is a part of an ecosystem that represents a world unto itself, which unbeknownst to us, impacts our daily lives.
Coffee grows in the understory of different species of native shade trees, many of which provide habitats for different ant species, as well as a diversity of bird and mammal species.
We get our coffee beans from inside the coffee berries and then we roast the beans to brew our coffee. Inside the coffee bean lives a tiny beetle called the coffee berry borer (Hypothenemus hampei). This beetle is a major threat to coffee farmers because it bores into the coffee fruit and destroys the berry before it can be harvested — lowering the quality of coffee. It can devastate coffee crops and drastically reduce the incomes of coffee farmers and the coffee supply.
Luckily for us coffee aficionados, there is the mighty ant. Many ant species that live in the shade trees surrounding the coffee plants collect food for their colonies on the coffee plants. Ants are really defensive in the areas they live and collect food from.
When they interact with coffee berry borers, they knock them off of the coffee plants. There are many other insect pests in coffee farms that reduce the yield and quality of coffee. However, many of them can be controlled by the many ants that are also present in coffee farms.
As farmers harvest coffee berries to sell to coffee roasters, similar ecologically complex interactions are taking place simultaneously on plants across our many different montane ecosystems throughout the James Reserve.
It is easy to forget that ecological interactions are happening all around us, not just in the depths of untouched jungles. To study suites of complex interactions, ecologists need to look no further than the farms that grow their morning coffee and at the James Reserve. Stay tuned for future discoveries!