Mutualism: Ants & Leafhoppers!
Location: Cherokee County, North Carolina
August 8, 2010 9:08 am
I first spotted these guys early on in spring of this year. At first they were on only a few stems of one locust sapling, but now, when these photos were taken, they’ve expanded to about six other saplings near their original location.
Earlier on in the year they were ”farming” small aphids as well as these little leafhoppers, but the aphids seem to have disappeared over the following months, and it seems that they’re tending the leafhoppers exclusively now.
It’s amazing to see how well the ants tend these little creatures. They divide the young ones from the old ones, and place the young ones on the newer growth while keeping the old ones on the thicker growth from the year before. Occasionally I saw an ant feeding by licking droplets(honeydew I suppose) that were excreted from the leafhopper’s posterior.
The ants guarded their herds quite well, and attacked just about any creature that strayed onto their branches. I conducted a little ”experiment” and managed to remove one of the leafhoppers without one immediately noticing. When the ant returned to the leafhopper’s original resting place and found that it was missing, it frantically ran about the stem and combed each nearby leaf. After about five minutes it met up with two other ants and they too ran around for about five minutes before giving up(the missing leafhopper in question escaped from my hand before I managed to put it back, unless something eats it I suppose it may return to the tree).
The locust saplings also hosted some sort of tiny black ants, but my less-than-stellar camera couldn’t zoom in quite enough. The large ants never seemed to notice them, and they appeared to be feeding on bits of locust sap at the base of the green stems.
Hopefully these little guys stay around for some time, they’re quite interesting to watch. After seeing these I’ve searched some other groups of locust saplings in the area, but this one small cluster seems to be the only one hosting these creatures.
Thanks so much for providing your detailed observations on the symbiotic relationship between Ants and Leafhoppers. Your observations regarding the frenzy over the vanished Leafhopper is especially interesting. Here in Los Angeles, the symbiotic relationship between the Argentine Ants and Aphids and Leafhoppers is most problematic since the invasive exotic Ant species transports the sap sucking insects from host plant to host plant, spreading the infestation throughout the garden. In these symbiotic relationships, both insects benefit. The Ants eat the honeydew secreted by the sap suckers as your narrative observes, and the sap suckers benefit from protection as you also observed.