No Enemies Needed: Cotton Aphids (Hemiptera: Aphididae) Directly Benefit from Red Imported Fire Ant (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) Tending

Kevin B. Rice, Micky D. Eubanks

Abstract


Honeydew is a carbohydrate-rich solution excreted by phloem-feeding insects such as aphids. Ants often consume this substance and, in return, protect aphids from natural enemies. This indirect benefit of ant-aphid mutualisms to aphids (reduced predation) has been examined extensively. Few studies, however, have quantified the direct benefits that aphids may gain from the mutualism. We conducted greenhouse experiments to estimate the direct benefits that cotton aphids, Aphis gossypii (Glover) (Hemiptera: Aphididae), receive from their mutualistic relationship with red imported fire ants, Solenopsis invicta (Buren) (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). We compared population growth and alate production between ant-tended and untended aphid colonies in the absence of natural enemies. We found strong evidence that cotton aphids receive direct benefits from their relationship with fire ants. After 12 days, aphid colonies with tending ants were 46% larger than their non-tended counterparts. Alate production, however, was not affected by ant tending, suggesting that a reduction in dispersal did not explain the ant effect on aphid population growth. We hypothesize that the increase in aphid population size results from altered feeding behaviors in the presence of ants. This study suggests that there may be constant selection for this mutualism even in the absence of aphid natural enemies because aphids gain direct benefits.

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