Red Ants and Wooly Aphids

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A red ant tends to a herd of wooly aphids on a boxelder sapling at Loch Raven Reservoir, Maryland.

Ants are one of the insect kingdom’s most ingenious creatures and they have a number of interesting behaviors, but perhaps the most intriguing is their version of agriculture.

Numerous ant species are known for tending herds of aphids, the ants want the sweet concentrated plant sap that the aphids pass as waste.  Aphid waste is high in sugar content and commonly referred to as honey dew in entomology circles.

Ant colonies have been documented standing guard for aphids, protecting them from predatory insects and even killing the larvae of insects that feed on aphids.

There are variations of this behavior, and sometimes the relationship can be very intricate. In certain species of ant and aphid pairings, the ants even relocate the aphids to new bushes once the aphid’s food source has been exhausted.

In other ant and aphid combinations, the ants milk the aphids to make them excrete honey dew, making the aphids totally dependent on the ants for survival.

In these more complex relationships the ants actually store and protect the aphid’s eggs each season. From our perspective, the aphids are the equivalent to livestock and have been domesticated as an asset of the ant colony.

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A red ant tends to a herd of wooly aphids on a boxelder sapling at Loch Raven Reservoir, Maryland.

In the case of the wooly aphids pictured here, that fluffy white stuff is a protective waxy coating secreted to make them distasteful to insect eating mammals.  Instead of getting a mouthful of sweet juicy aphids, the animal gets a taste of the bitter waxy fluff.

In the Eastern U.S., look for red ants tending wooly aphids near bodies of water on boxelder saplings.

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A red ant tends to a herd of wooly aphids on a boxelder sapling at Loch Raven Reservoir, Maryland.
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A red ant tends to a herd of wooly aphids on a boxelder sapling at Loch Raven Reservoir, Maryland.
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2 thoughts on “Red Ants and Wooly Aphids

  1. Beautiful captures of the ants. Up close and personal and they look so nimble. Never knew aphids secreted that kind of fluffy stuff – that really looks like cotton wool or cotton candy. Deceptive but clever. I would think that the ants would work together to move that being hard little teamworkers that they are 🙂

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    1. Thanks Mabel!

      Just the wooly aphids are white and fluffy, there are many different species of aphids. Those red ants don’t mind the fluff because the go straight for the honey dew.

      What blows my mind is how these ants retain the knowledge of all their specific chores and duties.

      I know they use a pheromonal form of communication to coordinate certain tasks with each other, but it seems like they have behaviors that go beyond what is stored in their DNA.

      It is almost like the entire colony is one organism. They are amazing little creatures.

      Liked by 1 person

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