Sunday, June 10, 2012

aphids (and ants)

A few weeks ago I noticed that some of my chamomile plants had visibly black stems.  The aphids were back.  This would not do.  Who wants to drink chamomile tea with bonus aphid bodies in it?  Not anybody I know, and yet I know that it probably happens all the time.  You either spray your chamomile with some pesticide—which isn't cool—or you let the aphids do their thing.  Their thing is to puncture a sap vessel and "suck" out a plant's juices.  (It's sort of like how we puncture a young coconut and drink its milk through a straw.)  Everybody has to drink—it's a law of nature—and we humans aren't the only ones who are choosy about what we drink.  There are more than four thousand species of aphid, and many of those species are monophagous, i.e. they feed on only one species of plant.  My aphids feed on chamomile until I crush them between my thumb and forefinger, which I do sometimes when I'm feeling particularly gruesome and game for a little death.  

It looks like a very idyllic picture, but it's not.  Somewhere in the vicinity someone is waging the timeless struggle for survival (hint: it's probably me).  But seriously, folks, I want to risk cliché and say that gardens, while pretty as pictures, are host to a million tiny brutalities and, I should confess, a million triumphs, too.  

I was so happy when I noticed yesterday that some ants had joined my aphids.  Go at it, boys, I thought to myself, Eat those bastards!  I went to a party and told my good news to my farmer friend, Phil.  He clapped his hands loudly and said, Yeah!  This morning I returned to the war zone, hoping to see a bunch of aphid corpses, but I found nary a corpse.  Quite the contrary.  A closer inspection of the battleground made me revise my theory.  The ants weren't eating the aphids at all!  They were just sort of walking on them, and very gingerly.  What the hell?!  I noticed some aphid eggs, too.  Not cool.  

Here is the picture you've been waiting for.  Look at all those f**kers clustered on that stem.  There's at least a zillion of them.  A zillion little black aphids and one dairying ant.  Dairying ant?  Yes indeed, that ant and its friends are in a mutualistic relationship with the aphids.  They are "milking" the aphids by gently stroking them with their antennae.  Rather than destroying them, they are farming them.  It's terrible.  It's very likely that the ants will carry the aphid eggs into their subterranean dens and then release them onto next year's chamomile plants!  Unless some predatory insects find out about this, next year's chamomile will be infested, too.  Care for a soothing cup of herbal tea?  What a bunch of bastards.     


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