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 founded the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine in 2007 and serves as the school’s primary instructor and Creative Director. She's been a professional plant-human matchmaker for close to three decades. Juliet caught the plant bug when she was nineteen and went on to earn a degree in Botany. She's owned just about every type of herbal business you can imagine: an herbal nursery, a medicinal products business, a clinical practice, and now, an herbal school.
These days, she channels her botanical obsession with her writing and photography in her online programs and here on her personal blog, Castanea. She's writing her first book: Cultivating Medicinal Herbs: Grow, Harvest, and Prepare Handcrafted Remedies from Your Home Garden. Juliet and her houseplants share a home with her family and herb books in Asheville, North Carolina.
Learn more about cultivation, identification, and uses for medicinal herbs in our 1,000-hour Herbal Immersion Program, which is the most comprehensive handcrafted online herbal course out there.