|Ants farming aphids, France [Alamy image ref. ACWKBP]|
A few years ago, whilst residing at a friend’s house in the country which had a large garden, I took advantage of the accessibility of trees and plants to, not so much experiment with macro photography – my patience and equipment is too limited for that speciality – but to look more closely at Nature to see what it offered that was different from my time from living in a town
One such observation was that ants – previously frequently observed in their hundreds forming a scurrying line to and from my garden to the kitchen and back again – were sometimes more content to collect, arrange and milk a captive insect for their natural sweetener rather than using my sugar bowl and its refined contents.
Even though ants are extremely numerous and observable – there are a million ants for every human on the planet – I had never seen the above scene before moving to France… perhaps French aphids are more tasty!
From Wikipedia… Some species of ants “farm” aphids, protecting them on the plants they eat, eating the honeydew that the aphids release from the terminations of their alimentary canals. This is a “mutualistic relationship”.
These “dairying ants” “milk” the aphids by stroking them with their antennae. Some farming ant species gather and store the aphid eggs in their nests over the winter. In the spring, the ants carry the newly hatched aphids back to the plants. Some species of dairying ants (such as the European yellow meadow ant, Lasius flavus) manage large “herds” of aphids that feed on roots of plants in the ant colony. Queens that are leaving to start a new colony take an aphid egg to found a new herd of underground aphids in the new colony. These farming ants protect the aphids by fighting off aphid predators.
When I first observed this symbiosis I couldn’t believe the regularity of the arranged captive aphids… so I snapped a few shots (sans tripod) trying to get as much in focus whilst fighting the natural shallow depth-of-field at close distances.
Of the 38 “ant farm aphid” images on Alamy all but one (mine) from three or four other photographers show random displays of these insects rather than the very regular ranks of aphids shown in my image. There are 21 aphids here surrounded by seven ants… so perhaps each ant needs three aphids to feed from!
This image was licensed by a German monthly magazine with a print-run of 10,000 for a “spot size” inclusion on a front cover.