Preserving the Environment

In Cities, This Surprising Clean Up Crew Makes an Impressive Dent

December 15, 2014
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In Cities, This Surprising Clean Up Crew Makes an Impressive Dent
Ants are being touted as topnotch cleaning crews. Taro Taylor/Flikr
The tiniest New Yorkers are quietly removing food waste by the tons.

They often show up as uninvited guests at picnics, but ants deserve more than being on the receiving end of aerosol spray.

Ants are known for their big appetites, and now, these common critters are being touted as topnotch cleaning crews. In a study published in Global Change Biology, North Carolina State University researchers have found that arthropods such as beetles, mites, and especially pavement ants can take an impressive chunk out of New York City’s food litter.

As CBS News reports, the team set up testing sites with hot dogs, cookies and potato chips in 24 medians (a grassy strip in the middle or side of the road) along West Street, Broadway and 11th and 12th Avenues in west Manhattan, and at 21 sites in city parks. Each site had two samples of junk food: one was caged so only arthropods could access it; the other was cage-free to allow arthropods, as well as larger animals such as rats and pigeons, to feast.

The result? Fast Company notes that after 24 hours, the team found that the arthropods alone guzzled 32 percent of the caged food. Animals, including arthropods, ate 80 percent of the non-caged food.

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“We calculate that the arthropods on medians down the Broadway/West St. corridor alone could consume more than 2,100 pounds of discarded junk food every year, assuming they take a break in the winter,” says Elsa Youngsteadt, a research associate at North Carolina State and the study’s lead author. That’s the equivalent of 60,000 hot dogs, 200,000 cookies and 600,000 potato chips — and that’s just on Broadway.

If used effectively, ants might be able to take a bite out of the country’s cleaning bill. It costs $11.5 billion each year to clean up America’s litter, with food remnants making up 20 percent of the trash.

Not only that, Youngsteadt adds that the little scavengers can help starve out the populations of larger, disease carrying vermin. “This means that ants and rats are competing to eat human garbage, and whatever the ants eat isn’t available for the rats,” she said. “The ants aren’t just helping to clean up our cities, but to limit populations of rats and other pests.”

And for you litterbugs out there, the researcher points out that this doesn’t mean we should “feed ants on purpose.”

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