On Herding Mealy Bugs

While photographing acrobat ants in our garden one day, I noticed something that caught my attention.   These ants were farming mealy bugs.  Now this is a fairly common behavior for several species of ants.  The fact that these ants were herding mealy bugs wasn’t what surprised me – these particular ants were building a structure to hold the 8-23-2015-8029-Edit-4.jpgmealy bugs!  That’s right.  They were constructing a corral to keep the mealy bugs from escaping.  Over the next few days the ants continued to modify their work.  They increased the height of the walls turning the corral into a roofed barn with a single, ant-guarded entrance.  Competitors couldn’t get in; the mealy bugs could not get out.

Ants are very protective of their mealy bugs, aphids and scale insects as food sources.  To tell other ants to stay away, they will stand over their mealy bugs with a venom-laden stinger extended.  Some species of ants pluck the wings off their aphids to keep them from flying away.  Others, will store aphid eggs deep in the ant nest during the winter so that they can have a fresh nectar-producing herd in the spring.  Crematogastors are one of only a few species of ants that go so far as building structures for their mealy bugs.  It is hard to say how the ants know to initiate this 9-1-2015(60)-9324-Edit.jpgbehavior and what plans they collectively have in mind.  Some research suggests it is scent driven, but that still leaves many questions unanswered.  One thing is certain, these tiny creatures are an endless source of fascination and wonder at the miracle of nature.

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