A white butterfly and a bumblebee on purple flowers.
Pollinators At Work Butterflies and bees provide vital plant pollination. © Chris Helzer/TNC

Food & Water Stories

Animals That Benefit Farmers

An interdependent web of interesting animals is crucial to the food we grow.

When people talk about farm animals, many of us think of cows, pigs, sheep, chickens and goats. Domesticated animals. But there is also a whole host of un-domesticated animals both large and incredibly small that are crucial to the healthy functioning of our farms. The web of life is intricate, and it includes a rich variety of beneficial animals that help people and the crops we grow. You may be surprised!

Take a farm’s soil, for example. Soil is by far the most biologically diverse part of the Earth. The soil food web on a farm includes thousands and thousands of beetles, springtails, mites, worms, spiders, ants, nematodes and other organisms. This multitude of soil organisms engineers pathways for rainwater, provides nutrients for plants and breaks down of organic matter from previous crops. These beneficial insects and soil creatures—and bigger predators that patrol the soil surface—provide checks and balances to the food web that makes farms fertile. 

A close-up of an earthworm, pink in color and slightly translucent.
EARTHWORM These faceless fellows can be big friends to farmers. © Flickr Creative Commons / Larah McElroy

Earthworms

It’s hard to get the warm fuzzies for earthworms. They have no legs. They don’t have eyes or a face, and their bodies stretch like rubber. They secrete a slime—mucus—that helps them slide more easily through the soil. But these faceless fellows can be big friends to farmers. Earthworms break up hard soil, create tunnels that allow air and water to better penetrate, and bring important minerals to the soil. Most of the 180+ species of earthworms in the U.S. bring great benefits to soil health on farms and can help improve fertilizer efficiency. It’s true that some non-native species of earthworms can negatively affect the soils in some forests. But when it comes to farms, earthworms are friends

A close-up view of a millipede, showing its head and some of its many legs.
MILLIPEDE Millipedes shred the leftover residue of previous crops—organic matter—and mix it through the soil. © Flickr Creative Commons / Adam

Millipedes

Their name comes from Latin, meaning “thousand legs.” As it turns out, no known species of millipede has a thousand legs. Most top out at several hundred. Although millipedes may look unpleasant, these arthropods (they are not insects) are harmless to humans and are in fact very beneficial to farm soils. Millipedes shred the leftover residue of previous crops—organic matter—and mix it through the soil. This gives smaller soil organisms like fungi and bacteria greater surface area to work on, and speeds breakdown of the crop residue, which ultimately makes the soil more fertile. 

Ladybug perched on a twig.
Ladybug The convergent ladybug (or lady beetle) is one of the most common ladybugs in North America. © Chris Helzer/TNC

Ladybugs

They are small but mighty. These diminutive flying beetles bring huge benefits to farmers and gardeners. Ladybugs (also known as lady beetles and ladybird beetles) gobble up crop-destroying aphids—one of the most problematic insect pests for farms and gardens. A single ladybug can consume 50-60 aphids in a day. In addition, ladybugs feed on mites, scales, mealy bugs, thrips and white flies. Ladybugs are so prized by gardeners and farmers that you can buy these beneficial insects from suppliers. Another sign of how highly ladybugs are esteemed: they are the official state insect of Delaware, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio and Tennessee.

A bee in the center of a bright yellow flower.
Melissodes Bee Bees fertilize many varieties of plants and important crops through the transfer of pollen as they forage. © Chris Helzer/TNC

Pollinators

As many schoolchildren can tell you, plants need pollinators. Why? A quick refresher: pollen from a plant’s male anther needs to be transferred to the female stigma in order for a plant to reproduce via seeds. About 87 percent of flowering plants rely on pollination—and more than 150 food crops in the U.S. That’s where pollinators come in. They make the crucial exchange of pollen. Several species of animals help with pollination, including hummingbirds, butterflies, moths and wasps. But bees do the heavy lifting, transferring far more pollen than other animals. Although European honeybees and bumblebees are the best known of the U.S. bee varieties, our nation actually harbors more than 4,000 species of bees! Protecting undeveloped habitat for pollinators—such as wildflower meadows on the edges of farmland—is vitally important to protect these industrious, fruitful creatures.

A black and yellow garden spider spinning a web around its insect prey.
BLACK AND YELLOW GARDEN SPIDER Spiders are primary controllers of insects. © Michael Glaspell/TNC Photo Contest 2019

Spiders

What is it about spiders that unnerves people? Is it their sticky, often hard-to-spot webs, or the way they pounce so quickly when prey is near? Something about spiders unsettles most people. Yet spiders are incredibly beneficial to us. “If spiders disappeared, we would face famine,” Norman Platnick of New York’s American Museum of Natural History told the Washington Post. “Spiders are primary controllers of insects. Without spiders, all of our crops would be consumed by those pests.” A study found that more than 600 different species of spiders patrol U.S. croplands, keeping crop-eating pests under control. 

Coyote trotting in a field at night.
Coyote Though they are predators, coyotes generally feed on rodents and other small animals that can be detrimental to growing crops. © Kent Mason

Coyote

Though they have a reputation as a pest animal and a nuisance, coyotes are in fact a species that can bring benefits to farms. Coyotes are skilled predators, and they keep populations of rodents that can destroy crops—such as rabbits, squirrels, gophers, voles and mice--in check. In fact, removing coyotes from an area can cause rodent populations to explode. While it’s true that coyotes are omnivorous and will sometimes eat fruit, berries and vegetables, 90 percent of their diet comes from meat. They do not pose a threat to farmers’ crops. Related to dogs and wolves, coyotes have found a way to coexist with humans and even expand their range. Formerly inhabiting the western portion of the U.S., coyotes can now be found in every state except Hawaii and have moved south, far into Central America. Ranchers sometimes may have a legitimate gripe with coyotes because in packs they are capable of attacking and killing livestock. The common solution: good fencing plus the coyote’s cousin, a livestock guard dog or two patrolling the territory.

A close-up view of a plains garter snake, with its red and pink tongue sticking out.
PLAINS GARTER SNAKE Snakes prey on gophers, field mice, rats, rabbits and other rodents that damage crops. © Chris Helzer / TNC

Snakes

Snakes get a bad rap. Many people seem to have an almost visceral revulsion to the sinuous reptiles. But snakes are generally shy creatures that avoid human contact. There are about 50 species of snakes in the U.S., and 20 of those are venomous—but even they shy away from human contact. While snakes are sneaking about our fields and avoiding us, they are preying on gophers, field mice, rats, rabbits and other rodents that damage crops by feeding on them or burrowing into their roots. Ways to distinguish different kinds of snakes.

A striped skunk walking through green grass and clover.
STRIPED SKUNK Skunks consume pest insects like caterpillars and grubs, field mice and voles, helping to keep them under control. © Flickr Creative Commons / Marcio de Moura

Skunks

Anyone whose dog has ever been sprayed by a skunk knows: it’s Grade A horrible. No one wants to be anywhere near a skunk. We fear skunks with good reason. But these slow-moving, stinky beasts can bring benefits to farms. Skunks consume pest insects like caterpillars and grubs, field mice and voles, helping to keep them under control. They also eat berries, leaves and grasses. Beekeepers do not like skunks, however. Because of their thick fur, skunks aren’t deterred by bee stings and they will seek out honeybee hives to dine on. 

A close-up view of a red bat, with its mouth open, exposing its teeth.
RED BAT A single insect-eating bat can consume hundreds of pest insects in a night, equivalent to half its body weight. © Cory Holliday / TNC

Bats

These winged mammals are the poster child for Halloween, and they have been associated with all things scary at least as far back as Bram Stoker’s classic horror novel Dracula, published in 1897. Some people fear that, like Dracula, bats will drink their blood. But none of the 40 bat species inhabiting the U.S. drink blood. Three species are nectar feeders that help pollinate desert plants, while the overwhelming majority of U.S. bats eat insects--in great abundance. A single insect-eating bat can consume hundreds of pest insects in a night, equivalent to half its body weight. A cave full of thousands of bats can consume literal tons of insects. Economists have quantified the dollar value of bats’ insect pest control to U.S. agriculture at $23 billion annually. Check out more amazing facts about bats.