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Ants and Scales

26 Mar
Carpenter ants tend scales on a shrub

Carpenter ant workers (genus Camponotus) tend scales on a shrub in Argentina.

Scales (superfamily Coccoidea) are members of the same suborder of hemipterans as aphids, mealybugs, and whiteflies (Sternorrhyncha) but are just a little more bizarre.  They are the barnacles of the insect world.  These strange little insects have adapted to a point where they no longer need to move to gather food.  Their tube-like beaks are plugged into the plant equivalent of blood vessels, which carry nutrients to them.  Adult female scales thus no longer need trouble themselves with developing such trivial things as legs, antennae, eyes and wings, and are almost unrecognizable as insects.  The males, on the other hand, resemble small flies, and flit among plants in search of buxom, blob-like females to mate with.

While feeding on the phloem (or sap) of plants, scales take in an excess of sugar compared to other important nutrients such as protein.  To counter this, scales (and many other hemipterans) excrete a sugar rich liquid called ‘honeydew.’  Honeydew often attracts other insects such as ants, who drink the honeydew and sometimes tend the scales like milk cows, protecting them from predators.

A carpenter ant (Camponotus) tends scales on a grass blade.

A carpenter ant (Camponotus) tends scales on a grass blade.