On a recent trip to Sri Lanka the main objective was to relax on the beaches but insects managed to creep into the holiday. Ok, having a deep interest in the world of creepy crawlies and being in a tropical country full of (for me at least) exciting new species, that was going to happen. However, I noticed, similar to Colin, that pest control had somehow managed to sneak into my passion for insects.
Well, on the lookout for pests I kept finding ants everywhere. Some of them would be your common pest ants, such as red ants, others would rather count as casual intruders to your home. What was really exciting was that I could observe and photograph their interesting behaviour.
Talking about photography, trying to click “crazy ants” made me understand why they carry that name; they run around in a manic and seemingly confused manner.
Back to the topic. It is known that ants have evolved very interesting social structures; it is lesser known that they have also developed very interesting relationships with other insects. Ants farm aphids such as mealy bugs and caterpillars just as we keep cows, sheep and other animals.
Why would they do that? Remember that ants love sugar? Well, aphids emit a sugary liquid, the so called honeydew, which is a waste product from sucking plant juices. As a trade-off for their honeydew:
- The aphids receive protection against predators, such as ladybugs and their ever hungry larvae. The ants will attack and eat insects which threaten their livestock.
- They carry the aphids to ‘pastures new’ where they can suck on tender plants and flourish (which makes them a headache for passionate gardeners as the excretion of honeydew causes mould to grow on the plant).
I also found ants catching an unlucky caterpillar that does not emit honeydew and yup, would be the protein portion of the ants’ dinner.
What do we learn?
Farming makes sense (not only for humans)
If ants did not have a sweet tooth, they would be gardener’s friend (and most probably live a more peaceful life, without ant bait and ant poison).