This is the fifth short news article written by students, during the professional development class of Spring 2024, about each other's research.

Student Spotlight: Adegboyega Fajemisin

By Valeria Lee

Footsteps, footsteps, footsteps. An army, many thousands strong. They are in our fields, weaving through the crops that feed the people of Pennsylvania. Ants. Harbingers of doom …or prosperity? Adegboyega Fajemisin is a Ph.D. student in the Tooker Lab trying to solve the mystery.

Adegboyega’s research is focused on evaluating the roles of ants in the agricultural systems of Pennsylvania. Ants can be important predators of insects that damage crops, but they can also “farm” aphids that feed on crop plants to collect the honeydew that the aphids produce. Adegboyega specifically focuses on farms that are no-till (which avoid the practice of tilling soil to establish crops). On these farms, he wants to determine if using cover crops–plants grown to improve soil quality–increases ant populations and helps them manage pests better.

It’s a conservation-based approach. My goal is to see what cover crops can do in this region, in a no-till system, and how that affects ants and pests.

While we know ants are predators in tropical and sub-tropical agricultural systems, we have little information about their roles in temperate climates such as Pennsylvania. Adegboyega plans to find out if they are predators of crop pests or negatively influencing crops in several ways. One of the methods includes baiting the ants, with cotton balls soaked in sugar-water, pecan cookies and waxworms. He will identify the species of ants, and also identify the contents of their stomachs. “If we say they’re predators, we want to know: are they actually eating the pests? So, we’re going to do a gut content analysis to check the diets of the ants, to see exactly what they’re feeding on,” Adegboyega says. This would also allow him to confirm whether ants are consuming honeydew produced by hemipterans.

Farmers that don’t perform tillage are providing perfect habitat for the ants to live in, due to the low levels of soil disturbance, allowing ant populations to build in field. It is also known that cover cropping provides additional habitat for beneficial invertebrates–such as spiders and carabid beetles that feed on ground pests–but how cover crops affect ant populations is not fully understood.

The overarching goal is to encourage conservation-based agricultural practices, such as no-tilling and cover cropping, to reduce the population of pests without the need for insecticides. This is better for the environment, and–according to studies from the Tooker lab–better for the yield as well. In previous studies, the Tooker lab has found that plots that follow no-till and cover cropping have a lower population of herbivores and a higher population of beneficial arthropods. The last piece of the puzzle is figuring out where ants fit in all of this.

“The functional roles of ants in agriculture have been being overlooked by researchers. This really drives me to want to do this research project,” Adegboyega says.

Adegboyega Fajemisin is a Ph.D. student in Dr. John Tooker’s Research Group. His research is supported by the Extension Graduate Assistantship Recruitment Award.