Tag Archives: ant attendance

On rarity, apparency and the indisputable fact that most aphids are not pests

I am willing to bet that when most entomologists are out for a walk spend most of their time looking at the ground or the vegetation between the ground and head height. Lepidopterists and odonatologists may be the exceptions that prove the rule, but most of us spend a lot of time looking for things lurking in dung, hiding under stones or bark, scurrying around in the undergrowth or making holes in leaves 🙂

Tell-tale signs for an entomologist that something is or has been enjoying a meal

I’m an entomologist, I’m trained to look out for signs of insect infestations; curled leaves as in the above picture tell me that almost certainly an aphid and her offspring have been at work, sticky leaves alert me to the fact that there are aphids above me in the canopy of a tree. Leaves with holes tell me that a beetle or caterpillar has been at work. Leaves spun together with a silk web tell me a similar story. Plants with their stems and leaves stripped right back inform me that sawfly, lepidoptera and beetle larvae have been at work. A fancy spiral of brown or white on a leaf tells me that a leafminer has been, or is at work. In some cases the insect may not be there when I see the damage, the curled leaves caused by an aphid or psyllid infestation remain there until leaf fall, the chances of finding a caterpillar feeding on the very obviously shot-holed leaves of a plant are slim.  Like all sensible herbivores, the culprit will be in hiding closer to the stem, only sporadically popping out to feed.  On the other hand it may have fallen victim to a visually acute predator (bird) that was attracted to the leaf by the tell-tale feeding signs, or been eaten by a predatory insect or  have been parasitized by an ichneumonid wasp.  Plants are a lot less passive than people think. By producing the equivalent of an immune response they cause the insects to move to different feeding sites to make more holes effectively advertising their presence to potential predators.  Simultaneously, the plant sends out chemical signals telling insect predators and parasites that there is a meal or host available.  An herbivore’s lot is not an easy one.

The Covid-19 crisis means that I have been working from home in a hamlet on the Staffordshire/Shropshire border.  To keep myself reasonably sane and moderately physically healthy I have been treating myself to a lunchtime walk along the bridleways, footpaths and public roads within a 5 km radius of my house. As a result I have become much more familiar with the area. One of the things that has been very obvious, apparent even, is that some plants dominate the roadside verges, cow parsley Anthricus sylvestris being one that really stands

Cow parsley – very common and abundant, occurring in huge swathes around Forton and Sutton and in this case and in many other sites along my walks, backed by the equally apparent hawthorn (Crataegusus monogyna) hedge.

out from the crowd at this time of the year. Not only is it very apparent, but it provides a great source of nectar for the spring butterflies such as the Orange Tip and the assorted bumblebees, solitary bees and hoverflies, that despite the anthropogenic pressures put upon them, still manage to make an appearance.  Nettles, as I particularly noticed when having to social distance myself from the sweaty joggers and cyclists taking advantage of the virtually deserted country lanes, also play a prominent role in the roadside plant community. Also very common, but showing a much patchier distribution and occurring in clumps, including in my garden, is the ribwort plantain, Plantago lanceolata, which is yet another so called weed*, that is perfect for pollinators.

Ribwort plantain – common but patchy and clumped – this clump in my garden where it is safe from forks and herbicides.

Although both the cow parsley and plantain were buzzing with pollinators, they were, and still are at time of writing, singularly devoid of herbivores, including my favourite aphids. Conversely, the odd scattered bird cherries (Prunus  padus) and the solitary self-seeded wild cherry (Prunus avium) in my garden are proudly sporting the characteristic leaf rolls caused by the bird cherry aphid, Rhopaloisphum padi and the cherry black fly, Myzus cerasi respectively.

Note that both these trees were not growing near any of their relatives and were surrounded and overtopped by other plant species, so as far as humans are concerned not very apparent.

This got me to wondering why it was, that, the to me, and presumably other humans, the very obvious cow parsley and plantains, were not covered in plant feeding insects, while the less apparent cherries were heavily infested by their respective aphids.  After all, according to Richard Root, large swathes of monocultures are likely to be easily found and colonised by pests. Plant apparency was first defined by the British born, American based ecologist Paul Feeny in the mid-1970s.

“The susceptibility of an individual plant to discovery by its enemies may be influenced not only by its size, growth form and persistence, but also by the relative abundance of its species within the overall community. To denote the interaction of abundance, persistence and other plant characteristics which influence likelihood of discovery, I now prefer to describe “bound to be found” plants by the more convenient term “apparent”, meaning “visible, plainly seen, conspicuous, palpable, obvious” (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd, edition; Webster’s Concise English Dictionary). Plants which are “hard to find” by their enemies will be referred to as “unapparent”, the antonym of apparent (O.E.D. and Webster, loco cit.). The vulnerability of an individual plant to discovery by its enemies may then be referred to as its “apparency”, meaning “the quality of being apparent; visibility” (O.E.D. and Webster, loco cit.). Since animals, fungi and pathogens may use means other than vision to locate their host-plants, I shall consider apparency to mean “susceptibility to discovery” by whatever means enemies may employ” Feeny (1976).

So, even though cow parsley is highly visible and apparent to us humans, and their pollinators, because it is an annual and thus ephemeral within the landscape, it is not necessarily apparent to the herbivores that want to feed on it. Conversely, trees, such as bird cherry, although not necessarily apparent to us, are apparent to insect herbivores because they are large and long-lived. How does this affect the way in which plants avoid being found and eaten by insect herbivores?

Peter Price, another British born American based ecologist very neatly summarised Paul’s hypothesis as follows

Long-lived trees which are bound to be found by herbivores, invest heavily in costly chemical defence with broad-spectrum efficacy.   These quantitative defences are expensive but the cost is tolerable for a long-lived plant.  Short-lived plants are less easily detected by herbivores, and their best defence is being hard to find in patchy and ephemeral sites.  Low cost defences are effective against generalist herbviores should plants be found.  Instead of tannins and other digestibility reducers found as defences in long-lived plants, short-lived plants have evolved with mustard oils (glucosinolates) in crucifers, for example, alkaloids in the potato family, furanocoumarins in the carrot family (Price, 2003).

All I can say is that the quantitative defences of the trees don’t seem to be doing as good a job as the less expensive ones of the cow parsley, plantains and nettles.  As an aside, it turns out that although both cow parsley and plantain have a lot of medicinal uses, their chemistry does include some insecticides (Adler et al., 1995; Milovanovic et al., 1996). Cheap and cheerful seems to be the answer for an herbivore-free life in this case 🙂 Earlier I referred to cow parsley and plantains as being common.  What does that mean? According to Wikipedia (where else would I go?),

 “Common species and uncommon species are designations used in ecology to describe the population status of a species. Commonness is closely related to abundance. Abundance refers to the frequency with which a species is found in controlled samples; in contrast, species are defined as common or uncommon based on their overall presence in the environment. A species may be locally abundant without being common.

However, “common” and “uncommon” are also sometimes used to describe levels of abundance, with a common species being less abundant than an abundant species, while an uncommon species is more abundant than a rare species.”

In the UK we have a conservation designation, Sites of Special Scientific Interest, the criteria for selection which can be found here. To save you the trouble of reading the whole document, the way in which rarity and scarcity are defined is as follows.

Nationally Rare (15 or fewer UK hectad (10 km squares) records)

Nationally Scarce – Notable A (31-100 UK hectad records),

Nationally Scarce – Notable B (16-30 hectad records.

Local – (101-300 UK hectad records)

Okay, so what has all this to do with aphids and their pest status? As you all probably know by now I love aphids; as far as I am concerned, where insects are concerned, they are the bee’s knees**.

Unfortunately, aphids get a terrible press, most of it, in my opinion, undeserved.

Just a couple of examples of aphids getting a biblically bad press.

A few years ago, I wrote a short piece about the fact that only a minority of the so far 5600 or so aphids described, are pests, and many are very rare. The cover of this issue of New Scientist from 1977, which appeared a few months after I joined the group, very nicely sums up the question that we really ought to be asking. Here I have to confess that the article from our lab (McLean et al., 1977), made the case for aphids being pests, and it was the late Denis Owen who defended aphids (Owen, 1977).

Tony Dixon’s cereal aphid research group (of which I was proud to be a member) got more than just a mention in this issue.

Two plants that I have a particular interest in are sycamore and bird cherry, mainly because of their aphids, but in the case of the bird cherry, I love its flowers.  Now, although both have very similar distributions and occurrences to cow parsley and ribwort plantain, ubiquitous, they are much easier

Distribution of cow parsley, ribwort plantain, and sycamore and bird cherry in the British Isles (Atlas of the British Flora)

to find aphids on than both cow parsley and plantain.  On my daily walks during which I pass countless cow parsley and plantain plants, I have, so far, only found one cow parsley with aphids on and not a single plantain has shown any signs of aphid infestation . I have also, only found one nettle plant with Microlophium carnosum on it.  Cow parsley has a number of aphid species that use it as a secondary host migrating there from willows or hawthorns. Plantains also serve as host plants to aphids, some such as Dysaphis plantaginea host alternate, others such as Aphis plantaginis, do not. The latter species, if present, is almost always ant attended (Novgorodova & Gavrilyuk, 2012), which, if you know what you are looking for, makes it easy to spot.  I know what to look for and so far, have not found any! Nettles are also very common in the roadside verges, and they too have aphids that love them, Microlophium carnosum and Aphis urticata, the former a favourite prey of ants, the latter, farmed by the ants.  So far this year I have only found one small colony of M. carnosum, and believe me, I have been looking.

So what about the trees? Sycamores are a common sight on my walks, occurring both as hedges and as solitary trees or sometime in small groups. Almost all the large trees have sycamore aphids, Drepanosiphum platanoidis feeding on their leaves, and many have dense colonies of the maple aphid, Periphyllus testudinaceus, some with ants in attendance. Bird cherry is not as common on my walks and where I have found it, they have been small trees or shrubs usually on their own, and surrounded by other woody plants. Without exception, all have been conspicuously infested by the bird-cherry oat aphid.  To summarise, we have common plants that support aphids that are not regarded as rare, but find startlingly different levels of abundance of them here in Staffordshire, and in my experience, elsewhere.  At the same time that I have been actively searching for aphids, six species of butterfly that the Woodland Trust lists as common, have been hard to miss.  In order of sightings these are the Orange Tip, the Peacock, the Small Tortoiseshell, the Speckled Wood, the Holly Blue and the Brimstone, two of which, the Peacock and the Small Tortoiseshell, being nettle feeders as larvae. Despite the abundance of nettles in the hedgerows, So far I have only seen one small colony of Small Tortoiseshell larvae on the of nettles. I am, at this juncture, unable to resist mentioning that adults of the Holly Blue feed on aphid honeydew J Going back to my original point, the fact that I have seen more butterflies than aphids doesn’t necessarily mean that the aphids are less abundant, just less apparent.

There are at least 614 species of aphid in the UK (Bell et al., 2015). I am not sure how many I have seen, I stopped keeping a personal tick list many years ago, but I would guess that I have seen about half of them.  I like aphids, I look for aphids, but there are many ‘common’ species that I have never seen. I have, however, seen some of the rare ones. Four that stand out in my memory are Monaphis antnenata, Stomapahis graffii, Myzocallis myricae and Maculolachnus submacula. The first feeds on the upper surface of birch leaves (Hopkins & Dixon, 1997) and was shown to me by the late Nigel Barlow, when he was on a sabbatical at Silwood Park. Stomaphis graffii which feeds under the bark of sycamores and maples and is ant attended, was shown to me by an MSc student, Andrew Johnson, also at Silwood Park.  Myzocallis myricae, the bog myrtle aphid, only found on bog myrtle (Myrica gale) (Hopkins et al., 2002), I saw in the Highlands of Scotland, when Tony Dixon asked me to stop the car so he could go and look at a clump of bog myrtle he had spotted as we drove along between field sites. The giant rose aphid, Maculolachnus submacula, I saw in my garden in Norwich (84 Earlham Road) when I was a PhD student at the University of East Anglia.  I only found it because I wondered why there was an ant nest reaching halfway up one of my roses.  When I looked, I found that they were farming the aphids that were feeding on the lower stems.

It is important to remember that most aphids are host-specific, some feeding only on a single plant species, others being confined to a single genus with only a minority having a wide host range*** and considered pests (Dixon, 1998). Given this, it is obvious that aphids with rare host plants are also going to be rare (Hopkins et al., 2002).  Many aphids are also very fussy about their niche, either feeding on a very particular part of a plant or having a very close association with a particular species of ant.  Looking at the aphids that the two Bobs (Influential Points it seems that aphids that are rare  are also ant-attended.  Given, that many ant-attended aphids aren’t rare it would seem an interesting area to pursue. Perhaps it is the degree of ant-attendance, i.e. facultative versus obligate that is the key factor?

If you look at the list of species of insects that are regarded as endangered and worthy of conservation in the UK, the overwhelming impression is that unless they are big and pretty they don’t get a look in.  Needless to say, despite their beauty and fascinating life styles, no aphids are included in the list L

We really should be conserving aphids, not squashing them. Many provide important nutrition for ants and other pollinators, honeydew.  They are an important source of food for insects and birds (Cowie & Hinsley, 1988).  Aphids also help plants grow by feeding mycorrhizae with their honeydew (Owen, 1980; Milcu et al., 2015). Finally, as aphids are so host specific using the presence of uncommon species in suction traps could help identify sites with rare plants.

Aphids, rare, useful and much maligned, time to rethink their role.

 

References

Adler, L.S., Schmitt, J. & Bowers, M.D. (1995) Genetic variation in defensive chemistry in Plantago lanceolata (Plantaginaceae) and its effect on the specialist herbivore Junonia coenia (Nymphalidae). Oecologia, 101, 75-85.

Bell, J.R., Alderson, L., Izera, D., Kruger, T., Parker, S., Pickup, J., Shortall, C.R., Taylor, M.S., Verier, P. & Harrington, R. (2015) Long-term phenological trends, species accumulation rates, aphid traits and climate: five decades of change in migrating aphids. Journal of Animal Ecology, 84, 21-34.

Cowie, R.J. & Hinsley, S.A. (1988) Feeding ecology of great tits (Parus major) and blue tits (Parus caeruleus), breeding in suburban gardens. Journal of Animal Ecology, 57, 611-626.

Dixon, A.F.G. (1998) Aphid Ecology. Chapman & Hall, London.

Feeny, P. (1976) Plant apparency and chemical defence. Recent Advances in Phytochemistry, 10, 1-40.

Hopkins, G.W. & Dixon, A.F.G. (1997) Enemy-free space and the feeding niche of an aphid. Ecological Entomology, 22, 271-274.

Hopkins, G.W., Thacker, J.I.T., Dixon, A.F.G., Waring, P. & Telfer, M.G. (2002) Identifying rarity in aphids: the importance of host plant range. Biological Conservation, 105, 293-307.

McLean, I., Carter, N. & Watt, A. (1977) Pests out of Control. New Scientist, 76, 74-75.

Milcu, A., Bonkowski, H., Collins, C.M. & Crawley, M.J. (2015) Aphid honeydew-induced changes in soil biota can cascade up to tree crown architecture. Pedobiologia, 58, 119-127.

Milovanovic, M., Stefanovic, M., Djermanovic, V., & Milovanovic, J. (1996). Some chemical constituents of Anthriscus sylvestris. Journal of Herbs, Spices & Medicinal Plants, 4, 17–22. Eugenol – insecticide

Novgorodova, T.A. & Gavrilyuk, A.V. (2012). The degree of protection different ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) provide aphids (Hemiptera: Aphididae) against aphidophages European Journal of Entomology, 109, 187-196.

Owen, D.F. (1977) Are aphids really plant pests? New Scientist, 76, 76-77.

Owen, D.F. (1980) How plants may benefit from the animals that eat them. Oikos, 35, 230-235.

Price, P.W. (2003) Macroecological Theory on Macroecological Patterns, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Thacker, J.I., Hopkins, G.W. & Dixon, A.F.G. (2006) Aphids and scale insects on threatened trees: co-extinction is a minor threat. Oryx, 40, 233-236.

Uusitalo, M. (2004) European Bird Cherry (Pruns padus L). A Biodiverse Wild Plant for Horticulture. MTT Agrifood Research Finland, Jokioinen.

** https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/the_bee%27s_knees    

***Hugh Loxdale however, would argue that all insects are specialists and that so called polyphagous species are, in reality, cryptic specialist species (Loxdale, H.D., Lushai, G. & Harvey, J.A. (2011) The evolutionary improbablity of ‘generalism’ in nature, with special reference to insects. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 103, 1-18.)

 

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Filed under Aphidology, Aphids

Not all aphids are farmed by ants

One of the great things about working with aphids is that it gave me the chance to go back to my childhood entomological roots of playing with ants.  Most gardeners have had the experience when cruelly* running their finger and thumb down an aphid covered plant stem of finding their hand suddenly covered with ants.   As someone who has a very relaxed approach to aphids, I find the presence of ants on a plant a handy way of finding aphids, although sometimes the ants are there because of extra-floral nectaries.  So what exactly is going on when you find ants and aphids together?

It has long been known that some aphids are farmed or tended by some ant species.  According to Jones (1927) Goedart** was the first to describe the relationship scientifically (Goedart & Lister, 1685) and by the latter half of the 19th Century you can find illustrations such as the one below that appeared in Van Bruyssel’s fantastic foray into early science-communication.

antsaphids-1

An ant dairy maid coming to milk her aphids – their siphunculi and anuses are just visible if you look closely: cleverly made to look like cow heads (From Van Bruyssel, 1870)

The ant-aphid association is usually defined as a mutualism as the two species exist in a relationship in which each individual benefits from the activity of the other.  Just to confuse people however, the association is also sometimes termed trophobiosis*** (e.g. Oliver et al., 2008) which is a more symbiotic relationship.

The degree of dependence of the aphid on the ants varies from species to species.  Some aphids, especially those that live underground on plant roots, are unable to survive without their ant attendants (Pontin, 1978).   Pontin (1960) also reports seeing Lasius flavus workers licking aphid eggs which he suggests stops them from going mouldy as the licking removes fungal spores.  He also noted that those eggs that were not cared for in this way did not hatch.  Other aphids have a more facultative relationship, and are able to survive quite successfully without the help of their friendly neighbourhood ants.

We tend to think of aphids as soft squidgy defenceless things that are easy to squash.  To other insects however, they present a bit more of a challenge.  Aphids have structural and behavioural defences to keep them safe in the dangerous world of bug eat bug.  Alarm pheromones and dropping behaviour are commonly used by aphids to avoid meeting predators face to face (Dixon, 1958a).    Aphis also have a number of physical defences.  Their spihunculi (cornicles) can produce a quickly hardening wax to gum up ladybird jaws (Dixon, 1958b).  Other aphid species cover themselves with dense waxy coats that make them less palatable or accessible to natural enemies (Mueller et al., 1992).  Other aphids have thick skins (heavily sclerotized) and what entomologists term saltatorial leg modification; long legs to you and me, and so able to give a ladybird or other opportunistic insect predator a good kicking (Villagra et al., 2002).  These characteristics, which are all costly, are reduced or absent in aphids that are frequently associated with ants (Way, 1963) as presumably with ant bodyguards in attendance, there is no need for the aphids to invest in extra anti-predator defences.

antsaphids-2

Note also the shortened siphunculi in Periphyllus testudinaceus and the hairier bottom, when compared with the leggy, and arguably, prettier Drepanosihpum platanoidis.

Apart from reducing their defensive armoury, those aphids that are obligately ant attended have a specially adapted rear end, essentially a hairy bottom.  This is more scientifically known as the trophobiotic organ.   The trophobiotic organ is an enlarged anal plate surrounded by special hairs that acts as a collection and storage device that allows the aphid to accumulate honeydew ready for the ants to remove at their leisure.

antsaphids3

Three different trophobiotic organs, some hairier than others – after Heie (1980)

antsaphids4

A real live view of the “trophobiotic organ” of Tetraneura ulmi (from the fantastic Influential Points website – http://influentialpoints.com/Images/Tetraneura_ulmi_aptera_on_grass_roots_c2015-09-04_14-53-13ew.jpg

Non-ant attended aphids without the trophobiotic organ, deposit their honeydew directly on to the leaf surface or on the ground, or if you are unlucky enough to park under an aphid infested tree, on to your car 🙂  Ants lick and collect sycamore aphid, Drepanosiphum platanoidis honeydew from leaves, but not directly from the aphids, which they do do from the maple aphid, Periphyllus testudinaceus, which also lives on sycamore trees P. testudinaceus (Pontin, 1958).

So what’s in it for the ants?  Why should they bother looking after aphids, even in some cases, keeping aphid eggs in their nests over the winter (Pontin, 1960)? The obvious answer is the honeydew that the aphids produce as a by-product of feeding on phloem sap. The amount of material that an aphid can remove from a plant is quite astounding.  A large willow aphid (Tuberolacnhus salignus) adult can sucks up the equivalent of 4 mg sucrose per day Mittler (1958) , which is equivalent to the photosynthetic product of one to two leaves per day.  Admittedly, they are large aphids and not ant attended****, but even an aphid half their size passes a lot of plant sap through their digestive systems.  Honeydew is not just sugar but is a mixture of free amino acids and amides, proteins, mineral and B-vitamins, so all in all, quite a useful food source for the ants (Way, 1963).  All aphids produce honeydew but not all aphids are ant attended and as I pointed out earlier, not all ants attend aphids.  Our research suggests that 41% of ant genera have trophobiotic species, but these are not equally distributed among ant families.  Some ant sub-families, for example the Fomicinae,  specilaise in ant attendance,  whereas in other ant families such as the Ecitoninae, aphids are used only as prey and the honeydew is gathered from plant and ground surfaces (Oliver et al., 2008).  The ant species that are most likely to develop mutualistic relationship with aphids appear to be those that live in trees, have large colonies, are able to exploit disturbed habitats and are dominant or invasive species (Oliver et al., 2008).

Those ants that do tend aphids don’t just protect them from predators and other natural enemies. They want to maximise the return for their investment. The black bean aphid, Aphis fabae, which is often tended by Lasius niger, has its tendency to produced forms reduced by the ants, thus making sure that the aphids are around longer to provide food for them (El-Ziady & Kennedy, 1956).  The ant Lasius fuliginosus transports young Stomaphis quercus aphids to parts of the tree with the best honeydew production (Goidanich, 1959) and Lasius niger goes one step further, moving individuals of the aphid Pterocomma salicis, to better quality willow trees (Collins & Leather, 2002).  Lasius niger seems to have a propensity for moving bugs about, they have also been seen moving coccids from dying clover roots to nearby living ones (Hough, 1922).

In the mid-1970s John Whittaker and his student, Gary Skinner, set up a study to examine the interactions between the wood ant, Formica rufa and the various insect herbivores feeding on the sycamore trees in Cringlebarrow Wood, Lancashire.  They excluded some ants from some of the aphid infested branches and allowed them access to others on the same trees and also looked at trees that were foraged by ants and those that weren’t.  They found that F. rufa was a heavy predator of the sycamore aphid, D. platanoidis, but tended the maple aphid,  P. testudinaceus (a novel observation for that particular ant-aphid interaction).  Ant excluded colonies of P. testudinaceus decreased, whereas D. platanoidis did not, but on those branches where ants were able to access the aphids, the reverse pattern was seen (Skinner & Whittaker, 1981).

The presence of thriving aphid colonies in the neighbourhood of ant nests and in some cases aphid colonies only exist where there are ant nests nearby (Hopkins & Thacker, 1999), has made some people wonder if aphids actively look for ant partners (Fischer et al., 2015).  There is, however, no evidence that aphids look for ant partners, rather the fact that wing production is reduced in the presence of tending ants, means that aphid colonies can accumulate around and close to ant nests (Fischer et al., 2015a).

That doesn’t mean that the aphids only rely on honeydew production to guarantee the presence of their ant bodyguards. The aphid Stomaphis yanonis, which like other

antsaphids5

Stomaphis aceris, also ant attended.  Imagine trying to drag that mouth part out of a tree trunk quickly 🙂

Stomaphis species, has giant mouthparts, and so needs plenty of time to remove its mouthparts safely definitely needs ant protection to cover its back when involved in the delicate operation of stylet unplugging. In this case, it turns out that the aphids smell like that ants, they have cuticular hydrocarbons that resemble those of their ant protector Lasius fuji and thus encourages the ants to treat them as their own (Endo & Itino (2013).  Earlier work on the ant-attended tree-dwelling aphids, Lachnus tropicalis and Myzocallis kuricola, in Japan showed that the ant Lasius niger preyed on aphids that had not been attended by nest mates, but tended those that had been previously tended (Sakata 1994).  This too would indicate the presence of some sort of chemical marker or brand.

To add support to this, just over twenty years ago (1996), I supervised an undergraduate student Arran Frood*****.   He worked with the maple aphid, and the ants L. niger and L. fulginosus.  Aphids on ant-attended sycamore trees were washed with diluted acetone or water.   Those that had been washed with acetone were predated more than unwashed aphids suggesting that It was like washing off the colony specific pheromone marker. In support of this hypothesis, Arran found that predation would also increase if he swapped a twig full of aphids between colonies, but not from one part of the colony to another. It also worked between the two ant species, Lasius niger and L. fuliginosus, so it seems like the ants have a colony specific marker on their aphids.  We should really have written this up for publication.

Although aphids do not actively seek ant partners, they may compete with each other to retain the services of their ant bodyguards by producing more honeydew (Addicott, 1978).  There is evidence that ants make their decisions of whether to predate or tend aphids by monitoring honeydew production and choose to prey on aphids in colonies that produce less honeydew (Sakata, 1995).  Recent work has also shown that the honeydew of the black bean aphid, Aphis fabae is often colonised by the bacterium Staphylococcus xylosus. Honeydew so infected produces a bouquet of volatile compounds that are attractive to the ant L. niger thus increasing the cahnces of the aphids being ant-attended (Fischer et al., 2015b).  This adds yet another layer of complexity to the already complicated mutualistic life style that aphids have adopted.

And finally, you may remember me writing about the wonderful colour variations seen in some aphid species and how this could be modified by their symbionts. In another twist, it seems that ants may have a say in this too, albeit at a colony level rather than at the clonal level.  The improbably named Mugwort aphid, Macrosiphoniella yomogicola  which is obligately ant-attended by the ant L. japonicus, is found in  colonies that are typically 65% green 35% red (Watanabe et al. 2016).  The question Watanabe and his colleagues asked is why do ants like this colour balance? One possibility is that red and green aphids have slightly different effects on the mugwort plants where they feed. Though green aphids produce more honeydew, red aphids seem to prevent the mugwort from flowering. Given that aphid colonies on a flowering mugwort go extinct, ants looking to maintain an aphid herd for more than a year might see an advantage to keeping reds around to guarantee a long-term food supply from their green sisters.

Aren’t insects wonderful?

 

References

Addicott, J.F. (1978) Competition for mutualists: aphids and ants.  Canadian Journal of Zoology, 56, 2093-2096.

Carroll, C.R. & Janzen, D.H. (1973) Ecology of foraging by ants.  Annual Review of Ecology & Systematics, 4, 231-257

Collins, C.M. & Leather, S.R. (2002) Ant-mediated dispersal of the black willow aphid Pterocomma salicis L.; does the ant Lasius niger L. judge aphid-host quality?  Ecological Entomology, 27, 238-241.

Dixon, A.F.G. (1958a) The escape responses shown by certain aphids to the presence of the coccinellid Adalia decempunctata (L.). Transactions of the Royal Entomological Society London, 110, 319-334.

Dixon, A.F.G. (1958b) The protective function of the siphunculi of the nettle aphid, Microlophium evansi (Theob.). Entomologist’s Monthly Magazine, 94, 8.

El-Ziady, S. & Kenendy, J.S. (1956) Beneficial effects of the common garden ant, Lasius niger L., on the black bean aphid, Aphis fabae Scopoli.  Proceedings of the Royal Entomological Society London (A), 31, 61-65

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*in my opinion at any rate 🙂

**I have had to take this on faith as have not been able to get hold of the original reference and read it myself

***Trophobiosis is a symbiotic association between organisms where food is obtained or provided. The provider of food in the association is referred to as a trophobiont. The name is derived from the Greek τροφή trophē, meaning “nourishment” and -βίωσις -biosis which is short for the English symbiosis

****Perhaps they are too big for ants to mess with?  They are, however, very often surrounded by Vespid wasps who do appreciate the huge amount of honeydew deposited on the willow leaves and stems.

***** He must have enjoyed it because he also did his MSc project with me the following year 🙂

 

Post script

I began this post with an illustration from Van Bruyssel.  I finish it with this illustration from another early attempt to get children interested in entomology.  Unfortunately in this case the  ant attended aphids are the very opposite of what they should look like and he further compounds his error by telling his youthful audience that the aphids milk the aphids via their siphunculi 😦

antsaphids-holdrich

The very opposite of what an ant-attend aphid looks like – from Half hours in the tiny world; wonders of insect life by C.F. Holder (1905)

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