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Come Sail With Me, to an Aphid Farm on a Willow Tree…

Aphid Farm run by ants

‘Oh, they’re aphids!’ I exclaim in an excited voice, while standing by the willow tree we’ve moored next to and reading an article on my phone.  My raised tone causes Mrs Waterland to glance at me and reply ‘what are?

‘Well, you see, they’re on this willow tree and I hadn’t even noticed them until I was checking a photo I’d taken of a group of Ants.  I could see something else in the photo when I zoomed in…  and it turns out they’re aphids…’

I continue reading and whisper…  ‘hang on a minute…   this is amazing…’ 

I grab my camera and turn back to the tree…

The ants are running an aphid farm…
Tending to their flock...

Tending to their flock…

Ants love the sugary substance called honeydew that aphids excrete as they suck on the pap of plants and trees.  They are clever enough to have worked out that if they stroke the aphids abdomen, it will help the process along and they will get their honeydew quicker.  But that’s just the beginning – ants will even herd aphids to locations rich in sap, and protect them from predators such as ladybirds.  They have been known to lead aphids to sheltered areas or let them in their nest at night to keep them safe.  When honeydew is produced the ants will sometimes eat it, but often take it back to the nest.

Now that is an amazing thing to learn through nothing more than spotting an ant on a tree!  In the video below, you can see the ants drinking the honeydew as the aphids proceed it…


Above, ants stroke the aphids’ abdomens with their antennae for honeydew.

(Please click the picture above to watch video)

A passing beetle is quickly removed from the area

A passing beetle is quickly removed from the area

All this activity is taking place in the top corner of the ‘knot’ on the willow tree, in the centre of the picure below.  After spending some time staring at the life in such a small area, and observing the creatures living there, I almost begin to shrink into its size, and the scale of the willow tree for those living on it becomes apparent.  I imagine most of the tiny insects living on this tree will never explore it all and, for them, it is a universe beyond measure.

It's a big world on a willow tree...

It’s a big world on a willow tree…

 

Other inhabitants of willow tree world…

This woodlice sat in the bark quite close to the ant colony

This woodlice looks like it can handle itself, but keeps well clear of the ants

 

This fly landed 'miles away' on another branch of the tree

A fly lands ‘miles away’ on another branch of the tree

 

Grey Goose III moored under a willow tree on the River Ant...

Grey Goose III moored under a willow tree on the River Ant…


 

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4 Responses

  1. Hi John, I’ve come across your blog via the BBC Discover Nature website. I like your writing very much, and as a Norfolk man myself can fully appreciate your love of the Broads. You conjure up the magic of the area with evocative prose and your insights are most inspirational. Great stuff! I also post my blogs on the BBC site and if you’re interested in my scribbling of wildlife related matters in the Broads and surrounds please have a look http://www.easternbushchat.blogspot.com. Keep up the good work and look forward to reading more. Barry

  2. Hello Barry,
    Thanks very much for your kind comments. It’s great to get some feedback and I’m so pleased you enjoy this blog. I’ve had a look at your site and very much enjoyed your latest post about Ranworth. I will be sure to check back to catch up on your other posts. All the best, John

  3. Thank you for posting about the ants and aphids. I have aphids and ants together on the sunflowers in my garden and wondered why they were together

    • Hi Alex,

      Thanks very much for commenting. I’m trying to learn more about the natural world and finding out about ants relationships with aphids has been a definite highlight for me.

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