Fierce Farmer Ants Protecting Elecampane
(and Treehopper Larvae)
Written and Photographed by Juliet Blankespoor
A couple days ago while gathering some giant ragweed (Ambrosia trifida, Asteraceae) with my apprentices, we were attacked and bit by some very uppity ants. Now, ant-insect relationships excite me, and ant-plant relationships even more. Naturally I was intrigued, especially because we don’t usually have biting ants in the southern Appalachians.
Upon closer investigation, I noticed the ants carefully grooming small brown striped insects, which looked like leafhoppers. They also seemed to be carefully guarding egg masses on the midrib of the underside of the leaves. So I set to googling and found that ants will “raise” or “farm” treehoppers (a group of insects in the Membracidae family, which closely resemble leafhoppers) in the same way they will care for aphids. These insects, like aphids, produce honeydew (a sugary exudate produced by leaf sucking insects), which the ants eagerly slurp up. The ants have a vested interest in healthy treehopper populations so they protect the eggs, larvae and honeydew-producing adults. These strong little bodyguards will quickly rise up against weeding gardeners and herbalists alike to protect their miniature “cows”.
Perhaps the ragweed benefits from the ants’ aggressive protection, even if they are raising insects that suck on their juices. Maybe losing a few leaves to the leafhoppers is worth keeping herbivores, which might completely devour a whole plant, at bay. The same day I was taking pictures of elecampane (Inula helenium, Asteraceae) and I noticed some very active ants on the underside of the leaves. Sure enough, there were treehopper larvae being dutifully tended to by the ants. Elecampane has been in my gardens for the last twenty years, with this insect mutualism right under my oblivious nose. It just goes to show that one can never poke around on the undersides of leaves enough!
Meet The Green Mastermind Behind Blog Castanea:
JULIET BLANKESPOOR is the founder, primary instructor, and Creative Director of the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine, an online school serving thousands of students from around the globe. She's a professional plant-human matchmaker and bonafide plant geek, with a degree in botany and over 30 years of experience teaching and writing about herbalism, medicine making, and organic herb cultivation. Juliet’s lifelong captivation with medicinal weeds and herb gardening has birthed many botanical enterprises over the decades, including an herbal nursery and a farm-to-apothecary herbal products business.
These days, she channels her botanical obsession through her writing and photography in her online programs, on her personal blog Castanea, and in her new book, The Healing Garden: Cultivating and Handcrafting Herbal Remedies. Juliet and her family reside in a home overrun with houseplants and books in Asheville, North Carolina.
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