Flora & Fauna

Feasting in the Redwood Forest

Ants tending aphids on the underside of young leaves of Big Leaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum) in Del Norte County.

Ants tending aphids on the underside of young leaves of Big Leaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum) in Del Norte County.

No doubt, we have all experienced the joy of showing up to a thoughtfully prepared Thanksgiving feast with family and friends. Surrounded by overflowing dishes of food, it is nearly impossible to go to bed hungry following a Thanksgiving meal.

Did you know that some animals in the redwood forest dine like it’s Thanksgiving throughout the year, on a feast prepared by another species? It’s true! Some ants tend flocks of aphids and dine on the sugary honeydew that aphids excrete after sucking sap from plants. These aphid-tending ants watch over their aphids, protecting the aphids from predators like ladybugs. Because of ant protection, aphid populations grow and ants receive a nearly constant supply of sugar.

In a dramatic turn of events, this seemingly happy partnership though can turn violent very quickly. If the ants discover another sugary food source, they will begin to eat the aphids in order to increase their protein intake. In fact, some plants produce sugar in special glands call nectaries, which encourage ants to consume the aphids that are sucking away the plant’s sugar.

This dramatic feasting occurs in the redwood forest all the time. In the photos, look at ants tending aphids on the underside of young leaves of Big Leaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum) in Del Norte County.

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