Tanglefoot, boon or bust?

Here in Panama there’s just about nothing more destructive, more pernicious, more aggravating, than leaf cutter ants. They can strip a sizeable plant overnight. By the time you see the damage, it’s too late. Usually the plants do recover but it’s obviously a set back.

When I learned of Tanglefoot I thought it might be my salvation. And it was. Sort of. For awhile.

Right now, mid May, we’re seeing the beginning of the rainy season. Obviously, plants love it. We have one hectare of land, about two and a half acres. In just over two years of living on the property, we’ve planted 10+ avocado and at least that many mangoes. A smattering of other trees, cacao, mamon chino, African tulip tree and a lot of palms. Also heliconia and flowering trees and shrubs of all sorts. The latter are the domain of my wife. The fruiting trees are mine.

It didn’t take long for the leaf cutters to discover the bountiful treasures. Our worker and others recommended various insecticides, which I was loathe to use. At first and for awhile, I left the leaf cutters alone. Live and let live. They’re just trying to make a living. And so forth.

But eventually the damage was too much to tolerate. Research indicated that the ants eat only the fungus that they cultivate underground via the leaf cuttings. As such, insecticides would not be effective. That turns out to be not quite right. But I’m getting a bit ahead.

I watched a lot of YouTube videos on mango cultivation and grafting. It was there that I learned of Tanglefoot. I immediately thought, “I gotta try this stuff!” And so I ordered a tub. Ebay, IIRC.

The stuff is, well, nasty. Might want to have some GoJo or Fast Orange handy. Better yet, use disposable gloves. The first time I used it I applied it with a putty knife. No gloves. Still messy, but it got the job done.

Didn’t last as long as I expected, however. Must have been in the rainy season. By now I’m on my second tub and took a different approach to the application. I had our yard guy wrap the trunks in some kind of cardboard that was handy and I showed him how to apply it. Good for a few days but the cardboard didn’t hold up. So I had him apply it directly to the trunk. Therein may have been the start of my problems. He applied it over a much larger length than I instructed. Didn’t realize this until he came back with an almost empty tub. When I applied it I used 1/4 or maybe 1/3 of the tub. He almost finished one. The next application was done be me, personally. For the most part, I applied it over a shorter length and above where the Tanglefoot had been previously applied. This time I wore disposable gloves and just smeared a relatively thin coating on the trunks.

I can’t swear to the precise chronology of the preceding as it didn’t seem that important. Until now. Also, “discrepancies” back them didn’t take on much significance. Until now.

A few days ago our worker told me that one of the avocado trees “fell over”. My initial thought was that somehow one of the two recently planted avocadoes had experienced an “anomaly”. Such was not the case.

A sizeable tree, 10-12 ft or more, planted before we actually moved on the property, did indeed “fall over”. WTF?

It broke in an area that had most recently received Tanglefoot. And right in an area that showed a constriction of the trunk. Something I had noticed on other trees but just decided to blow off at the time.

In this and the preceding photo you can see how the diameter of the tree is “sucked in” where the Tanglefoot was applied. An earlier application of Tanglefoot lower down shows a similar constriction of the trunk.

After this. other, similar events started to arrive at my recollective consciouness. An African Tulip tree had just “broken” mysteriously. Puzzled, but eventually I just forgot about it. If I go back far enough I might be able to find a photo of it at the time. But for now this photo should suffice. You can see where the break occurred at the base of the V. The tree put out two new branches just below the break.

This photo also shows quite clearly a blistering of the trunk. It could have come only from Tanglefoot. Other trees show this same effect but not quite as dramatically.

A loquat, planted from seed more or less two years ago, was thriving. Some time after applying Tanglefoot I noticed a constricting of the trunk where Tanglefoot had been applied. Again, WTF? But I just blew it off. About 6 or 8 wks ago the leaves started dying. Now it really has my attention. But what can be done at this point?

This is the greatest narrowing of the trunk relative to the trunk diameter of any tree with Tanglefoot.

A Mamon Chino, planted hardly a year ago, was thriving. But then again, this is an easy-to-grow, fast growing tree. Same thing happened. Similar results with a small mulberry tree. So far four trees, not counting the large avocado, have been killed by Tanglefoot. I think the evidence is more than circumstantial. Two additional large avocado trees have a constricting of the trunk at application site. It remains to be seen if these, too, will fall over.

Mango and citrus have, so far, been unaffected.

I found an insecticide in pellet form called Fipronil that seems to be quite effective. I sprinkle just a little on the nest and maybe trails leading into the nest. Contrary to what I read earlier, I observed on multiple occasions leaf cutter ants taking the bait and carrying it into the nest. It seems to wipe them out overnight. Maybe not as ecologically friendly as Tanglefoot, but it’s certainly not harming my trees.

I may or may not continue with Tanglefoot. I have four unopened tubs now. But there’s no way I will be applying it directly to the trunk anymore.

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