Ants Help Save a Tea Industry

Have you read The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency collection of books by Alexander McCall Smith? In these mystery novels Precious Ramotswe, a private detective in Botswana, often partakes in redbush tea. Did you know that she might not be drinking that tea if it weren’t for ants?


Redbush tea, also known as rooibos, is processed from the shoots and leaves of a native African plant, Aspalathus linearis. Cultivation of the plant was initially difficult because when the seed pods mature, they rupture and shoot out the seeds. As you can imagine, that made it nearly impossible to find and pick up large enough quantities of the seeds to farm the plants.

Farmers eventually discovered certain kinds of ants harvest and store the rooibos seeds in their nests. The farmers collected seeds from the ant nests and planted them successfully. Now farmers have developed a technique to sift the soil for seed and do not rely on ants as much. Because of their initial use of the harvesting power of ants, however, redbush tea is now available worldwide.

Note: Contrary to some reports on the Internet, the seeds gathered by ants are used to grow new plants, not to make the tea itself.

Does anyone know what species of ant is involved?

Links to more information:

Rooibos Farming – From Seed to Shop

All About Rooibos