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Vegetation connectivity increases ant activity and potential for ant‐provided biocontrol services in a tropical agroforest

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In natural and managed systems, connections between trees are important structural resources for arboreal ant communities with ecosystem‐level effects. However, ongoing agricultural intensification in agroforestry systems, which reduces shade trees and connectivity between trees and crop plants, may hinder ant recruitment rates to resources and pest control services provided by ants. We examined whether increasing connectivity between coffee plants and shade trees in coffee plantations increases ant activity and enhances biological control of the coffee berry borer, the most devastating insect pest of coffee. Further, we examined whether artificial connections buffer against the loss of vegetation connectivity in coffee plants located at larger distances from the nesting tree. We used string to connect Inga micheliana shade trees containing Azteca sericeasur ant nests to coffee plants to compare ant activity before and after placement of the strings, and measured borer removal by ants on coffee plants with and without strings. Ant activity significantly increased after the addition of strings on connected plants, but not on control plants. Borer removal by ants was also three times higher on connected plants after string placement. Greater distance from the nesting tree negatively influenced ant activity on control coffee plants, but not on connected plants, suggesting that connections between coffee plants and nest trees could potentially compensate for the negative effects that larger distances pose on ant activity. Our study shows that favoring connectivity at the local scale, by artificially adding connections, promotes ant activity and may increase pest removal in agroecosystems. Abstract in Spanish is available with online material.

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