Ants Are Farmers
Besides humans, ants are the only creatures that will farm other creatures. Just as humans raise livestock as a food source, ants will do the same with other insects. The most commonly farmed insects are aphids. Occasionally mealybugs and soft scales are farmed when there is a plentiful source available.
Aphids feed on plants by sucking on the nutritious plant saps found in both the stems and leaves using their specialized mouthparts. Unable to properly digest all of the plant sugars, the aphid excretes large quantities of liquid waste that is sweet and is known as “honeydew”. This fluid, in turn, attracts ants that drink up the honeydew as an easily acquired carbohydrate source.
Ants are so attracted to this honeydew, that they will herd large colonies of aphids in order to maintain a constant supply. This supply is “manufactured” in order to feed the ant colony.
Honeydew Ranch Life
Once ants pick up the scent of honeydew, they begin herding aphids by excreting a tranquilizing semiochemical from their feet, which subdues the aphids while walking in the ant footprints, keeping them in one place.
When the aphids become docile and start feeding, the farmer ants also start feeding. In order to keep the honeydew production in full swing, dairying ants begin milking the aphids by stroking their backs with their antennae. This tickling causes the aphid to excrete more honeydew. This production process continues round the clock. Ants tend to do most of their milking at night and will spend hours grooming and stroking their “cows”.
Ants bite the wings off the aphids in order to stop them from getting away and chemicals produced in the glands of ants can stunt the growth of aphid wings. Once an aphid matures or becomes ill, the ants simply eat it to get rid of it. This provides the necessary protein for the ants.
Aphid colonies need protection from predators and the ants are willing to fight off beetles and lacewings in order to maintain an unlimited supply of honeydew. Ants will shield aphids from rain as well.
When a host plant’s sap runs dry and honeydew production slows down, the ants simply relocate the aphid cows to a new host plant. The ants tranquilize the aphids and carry them one by one to the new grazing field.
Back at the Colony
Dairying ants consume honeydew and reserve some of it in a special pouch in their abdomen, called a crop. The ant over eats until the crop becomes distended. Worker ants will carry the “honey pot” back to the colony where other ants feed on the honeydew when food becomes scarce. When a hungry nest member uses its antennae to tap the mandibles of the ant storing honeydew in her crop, it receives the honeydew from the mouth of the food-storing ant.
Honeydew is not the only thing brought back to the ant nest. Aphid eggs are also collected by the farmer ants and carried back to the colony where they are protected until they hatch. Once the eggs hatch, the ants carry them to a host plant to feed.
If you are seeing ants on your outdoor plants, you can be sure that they have detected honeydew. Call Vulcan Pest Control today to assist you with pesky ants and aphids!