Welcome to the Lab!

It’s another season of Barcoding US Ants, our collaborative community science project with the DNA Learning Center in Long Island. After spending last summer searching for ants, it seems to come easier this year. 

One specific reason for using ants for this barcoding project is simple: Ants are everywhere. And once you start looking for them, you notice just how abundant they are. Ants are consistently underfoot; crossing trails, climbing trees, nesting under rocks and sometimes in our homes. On a recent hike up the Barmeyer Loop in Missoula, I even saw some tending their flock.

Ants have developed incredible cooperative strategies in order to support their nests. Leafcutter ants practice what is essentially ant agriculture (ant-riculture?) by cultivating a nutritious and edible fungus in their nests. While leafcutter ants may be considered the farmers of the ant family (Formicidae), dairying ants, like those seen above, are the ranchers.

The ant shepherds tend their flock in the same way a rancher tends their cattle. They will herd them to “greener pastures” (better plants), and provide shelter for them when it rains. The ants will go so far as to protect their flock from predators, namely, ladybugs. 

Why go through all this trouble? Just as humans use cattle for milk and meat products, the ants will “milk” their aphid flock for sustenance in the form of honeydew. Honeydew is a sweet, sugary substance secreted by the aphids, a result of their strict plant sap diet. Occasionally, the ants will eat an aphid or two. Their equivalent of a burger and a milkshake, I suppose.

Until next time, thanks for joining us at the lab!

Bug Wrangler Brenna

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