23 November 2009

Aphid-tending ants cull the sick from the herd

ResearchBlogging.orgJust released online at Biology Letters: aphid-tending ants have been observed to selectively remove sick members of their "herd" [$-a].

Most aphid species produce some sort of sweet honeydew as waste while feeding on their host plants; ant-attended aphid species use this honeydew to attract ants. In many cases, the ants "milk" the aphids by stroking them to prompt release of the honeydew. While exploiting a colony of aphids, ants defend it as a food resource, protecting the aphids from predators. Aphid species that commonly rely on ant protection often lack defensive adaptations [$-a] found on species that don't interact with ants.

Ants tend aphids on a milkweed plant. Photo by dmills727.

Niesen et al. report the results of experiments performed ants attending colonies of milkweed aphids, Aphis asclepiadis, which are susceptible to a fungal pathogen that can wipe out aphid colonies in a matter of days. In two experiments, they introduced aphids into the ant-attended colonies, and tracked what the ants did to them. They found that
  • Ants were more likely to remove the corpses of fungus-killed aphids than either the corpses of aphids killed by freezing or introduced live aphids; and
  • Ants were more likely to remove live aphids contaminated with fungal spores (conidia) than live aphids without spores.
The authors speculate that this behavior is a re-application of ants' treatment of their own sick and dead within the colony. It seems clear that it should have benefits to both ants and aphids in this new context, slowing or preventing the spread of the fungus within an aphid colony. This benefit isn't directly tested by Nielsen et al., but such an experiment is a logical next step.


Nielsen, C., Agrawal, A., & Hajek, A. (2009). Ants defend aphids against lethal disease Biology Letters DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2009.0743

Way, M. (1963). Mutualism between ants and honeydew-producing Homoptera. Ann. Rev. Entomology, 8 (1), 307-44 DOI: 10.1146/annurev.en.08.010163.001515

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