About Termites, Ants, Desertification and Dryland Crops

By Abraham Blum (Curator,


A story released by Princeton University tells about the ecological advantage of termite mounds as “holding back the desertification”. The research was published in ‘Science’ (see below).

It is stated that “In the parched grasslands and savannas, or drylands, of Africa, South America and Asia, termite mounds store nutrients and moisture, and — via internal tunnels — allow water to better penetrate the soil. As a result, vegetation flourishes on and near termite mounds in ecosystems that are otherwise highly vulnerable to desertification, or the environment's collapse into desert.”

The flourished plant growth by the termite mound is an old story to wheat growers in the dry Negev region of Israel. This can be clearly seen in the effect of anthills in drought-affected wheat fields as depicted in Fig.1. The analysis of the flourishing plants over the anthill showed that theses wheat plants had better water status and higher nitrogen content than the wheat around them. This did not mean that the anthill (or termite mound?) effect was expressed in better field area yield or its total water balance. Water received by the anthill was associated with runoff from other patches in the field which lost the needed water for growth. Fig.1 demonstrated a drier area around the anthill as compare with the rest of the field as seen in top area of the photograph. Thus, anthills which benefited plant growth on their top could very well be associated with enhanced dryness in other areas of the field. When the total land area is considered, the positive effect of singular anthills (or the termite mounds?) may not necessarily prove that they “hold back deserts” as claimed by the Princeton research.

The anthill effect warrants serious quantitative studies by soil conservation specialists and agronomists to develop an estimate of the real total net result on a watershed basis.

Ant hill in a doughted wheat field CR


Fig.1. Wheat growth over an anthill in a drought-affected field of wheat in the Negev region of Israel. Author’s photograph, 1978.