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.
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.