Tiny Reddish-Brown Ants

2018 February 4

I found these very small ants tending their grubs when I flipped over a rock on April 22, 2017. By very small, I mean the individual ants were only a couple of millimeters long, and were pushing the ability of my camera to resolve details.


Just for reference, around here, April 22 is still pretty early in the spring. There were still patches of snow on the ground, and the trees were barely starting to think of the possibility of leafing out. And yet, these ants had obviously started rearing more brood at least a couple of weeks previously (and given the sheer number of nearly-pupating-size grubs they had, probably closer to a month previously).


I think these are a species of ant that I had previously posted way back in 2011. At the time, ant expert James Trager said that they were probably Brachymyrmex depilis. But, the key ID feature is that they have 9 segments in their antennae, as opposed to the 12 segments that most other ants have. Unfortunately, the segments are just a smidge below the resolution of my camera this time,


but they look so very like the ones from last time that I feel reasonably confident that they are the same species.

The main reason I wanted to post these, is that last time I photographed them in the middle of the summer, when they were fully engaged in raising males and new queens. These grubs, so early in the spring, are most likely going to be workers. So these ants clearly overwinter as a pretty much going concern, and get going on brood rearing quite quickly as soon as things thaw. They may even rear brood through the whole winter. But, given that nothing much had started growing yet at this point, what were they using for food?

Well, apparently these ants mostly collect honeydew from subterranean aphids, which feed on plant roots. And these aphids probably go all winter, sucking the juices from perennial plants that have live roots through the whole winter. And, since the aphids have food the whole time, the ants do, too!

At this point, some people may be wondering why I don’t have pictures of the subterranean aphids. I’m wondering that, too. How does one spot them? The fact that the ants that farm them are only a couple of millimeters long, suggests that the aphids may be darned near microscopic. Finding them could turn out to be quite a challenge.

One Response
  1. Anne Bingham permalink
    February 4, 2018

    Defeatist! Where’s the old get-‘er-done attitude! Repeat after me: I choose to photograph subterranean aphids not because it is easy, but because it is hard!

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