True ecology: Ant-whisperer wants to keep your apples blemish-free

Ida Cecilie Jensen wrote her thesis on using wood ants as pest control in apple orchards, and before she knew it, she had established a company to market her environmentally friendly idea.

Ida Cecilie Jensen
Along with her research at the Department of Ecoscience, PhD student Ida Cecilie Jensen runs her startup AgroAnt. Photo: JS Danmark

Despite the fact that the main participants are very small indeed, PhD student Ida Cecilie Jensen made a discovery with enormous potential in her research. The beneficial effect of ants in combating pests in agriculture has long been known, but Ida Cecilie Jensen’s discovery is revolutionary: apples simply get less scab (fewer spots) when there are wood ants in the trees.

However, wood ants bring aphids, which fruit growers dislike. But that is no longer the case. Ida Cecilie Jensen first wrote an academic assignment on the subject, followed by her thesis. She discovered that having wood ants on the branches reduced scab by 60%, and at the same time, a research group was working on developing a sugar product that made the ants stop caring for aphids.

“I wrote my thesis with a supervisor who is the country’s foremost ant expert. For this purpose, we established an experimental plantation. After finishing the thesis, it irritated me that the existing pest control companies in Denmark refused to market the concept. After all, organic production MUST be developed. We depend on it,” Ida Cecilie Jensen says.

She contacted The Kitchen and decided to start AgroAnt herself. Then everything happened very quickly.

Denmark’s Political Festival and SDG Tech Awards

“The consultants at The Kitchen have given me support to set up a business while I am still writing my PhD project. They have been there for me the entire time, helping me get on courses, providing feedback, putting me in touch with an accountant and a lawyer – they have been invaluable.”

Ida Cecilie Jensen was invited to participate in this summer’s Folkemøde (Denmark’s Political Festival) on Bornholm – “it was also The Kitchen that was responsible for me getting an invitation” – where she competed in a pitch competition in front of a panel of judges that included former ministers Tommy Ahlers and Connie Hedegaard, as well as Christian Vintergaard, CEO of the Danish Foundation for Entrepreneurship.

“I thought I could start it quietly as a side project while working on my PhD. But it’s amazing how quickly things have changed!”

Ida Cecilie Jensen won two pitch competitions and four grants, totaling more than DKK 250,000 in funding to launch AgroAnt. This summer, she was nominated and selected as a finalist in the “Best Startup” category at the SDG Tech Awards, one of the Nordic region’s largest sustainability competitions.

More conferences and a revelation

AgroAnt will establish its first anthills in apple orchards, complete with sugar dispensers, in 2023. The machines are the most innovative aspect of AgroAnt, and Ida Cecilie Jensen has collaborated with an engineer and Grundfos in the development work.

“I don’t have to invent anything revolutionary with the machine when others have extensive experience with this type of thing,” Ida Cecilie Jensen says.

She will also attend several conferences in 2023, as well as remain active in a forum for female entrepreneurs and talk with consultants from The Kitchen. At the same time, she is working full-time on her PhD, in which she is investigating the true cause of how the ants keep apple scab at bay. Because, in fact, no one has ever documented this.