Ants farming aphids on a grape vine
Ants farming aphids on a grapevine. Not near my home, thankfully.

I’m currently losing the war against aphids and I can’t stand them. I was so happy to see a praying mantis recently and hoped all the tiny critters would be gone, but I think my mantis friend took off. They are destroying some flowers and herbs and it’s about time to get the spray. THE SPRAY! The mixture of dish soap and water is supposed to keep them at bay.

If there’s anything more disgusting than the thought of aphids chewing up my petunias and mint it’s this: the fact that some ants are farming and pampering aphids. Ants like to eat the sticky sweet substance that aphids leave behind, so they will keep them as livestock. The ants defend their pets from predators such as ladybugs and lacewings, and in return the ants get a constant supply of aphid poop.

Research from Imperial College London showed that ants can also drug the aphids into submission using secretions on their feet, making the aphids easier to manipulate. To quote the article:

Scientists had previously established that certain types of aphids live in colonies where they are used as a food source by a neighbouring colony of ants. The ants have been known to bite the wings off the aphids in order to stop them from getting away and depriving the ants of one of their staple foods: the sugar-rich sticky honeydew which is excreted by aphids when they eat plants.

Chemicals produced in the glands of ants can also sabotage the growth of aphid wings. The new study shows, for the first time, that ants’ chemical footprints — which are already known to be used by ants to mark out their territory – also play a key role in manipulating the aphid colony, and keeping it nearby.

You just can’t make this stuff up. Nature is endlessly fascinating.

This entry is in response to this week’s theme of Close Up.

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