PUBLISHED ON March 8th, 2012
In the world of pest control, ants and aphids aren’t usually seen as partners in crime; however, recent research has revealed that members of the two species have learned to scratch each other’s backs. According to scientists, aphids and fire ants practice mutualism, or a tit-for-tat relationship in the animal kingdom. Unfortunately, this symbiotic relationship has created an ant pest control nightmare in some regions.
Although we don’t have fire ants in the Pacific Northwest, it’s fascinating to look at how these pests have partnered with aphids for their mutual benefit.
Every year, Americans spend more $1 billion in pest management services to control ants. Aphids, however, are undermining these efforts by helping to keep fire ant populations strong. How? Entomology researchers found that fire ants provide aphids with protective services in exchange for food.
Aphids naturally produce a sugary, sticky liquid called honeydew that fire ants love to eat. Thus, in exchange for protection, they provide the ants with a virtually unlimited buffet. To put the relationship into perspective, it is similar to humans caring for dairy cows in exchange for the milk.
While household ants can have a similar symbiotic relationship, ant pest control experts in other regions are particularly concerned about this collaboration between fire ants and aphids because of its potential to wipe out native ant ecosystems. Scientists have learned that aphid honeydew is like an energy drink that allows fire ants to take over new territories and out-forage other ant species. Laboratory tests and field experiments found that fire ants paired with aphids had colonies that were 20 percent larger than those in identical, aphid-free environments. These tests explain why, despite the best efforts of pest management services, these ants continue to thrive.
Despite advances in pest control, ants remain one of the most commonly reported pests across the board. Clearly, their ability to adapt – and even recruit helpers from other species – has something to do with it.
[ Image Source: Luis Fernández García L. Fdez. via Wikemedia Commons ]