The Dairy Project

by | March 8, 2017

There was a herd of cattle reared on a stalk of grass, yes you read it right; on a single stalk of grass and two herdsmen were tending milk on the go. Dairying has been known to mankind much before civilization but we are talking about the dairying which began even before mankind evolved!

Ants that build cities underground are among the oldest civilizations of eusocial animals like termites, snapping shrimps, bees and humans. They have probably developed relationships with their neighbors and one such mutualistic relationship worked well with aphids.

One of the evening naturalists’ walks within the Forsyth lodge drew our attention to a stalk of grass speckled with sesame like beads on them. We knew there would be more stories to follow when aphids are around, not just the dairying by ants but a few species like willow aphids are known to develop inside their grandmothers! Possibly not so in this species or we didn’t have the microscope to discover the telescoping birthing to see live young aphids womb-in-a-womb!!

However, one of the Crematogaster ants walked up to a herd of aphids and sipped on the sugary excretion the aphids offered from their behind. While another moment the ant signaled with antennae to the aphids for its supply. On another stalk a few aphids that had wings developed either for nuptial flight or to avoid scarcity of food. Ants are known to clip such wings to keep the herd within their foraging range.

We watched an ant hike up a stalk of grass to where a group of aphids were busy at the sap, the ant tapped a few beats on the aphid with their antennae and the aphid didn’t respond, the ant tapped on another aphid, then another which probably was not ready to ooze its ‘milk’. As a milkman presses the udders, this ant with its forelegs held the aphid’s mid to let the sugar savory out.

Even aphids in turn have a symbiotic relationship with certain bacteria that have evolved for millions of years to farm for aphids inside their bellies. These bacteria enable the aphids to feast on such crops and yield sugars as an excretory product. And imagine this waste product of aphids can be their way of gaining protection from the ants through dairying! If any Lady bug is on the prowl for aphids, the ants mob the Lady away and the aphids happily graze which reminds us of stories of herders defending their cattle from wolves while herding!

Zooming out of this grass stalk, it seemed there were oceans of cattle herds with their own herdsmen. It was barely a 50 square meter patch for human scale. But for these ants it might have appeared like the Prairies. To our wonderment the aphid forages happened just before the grass seeds ripened in this large Prairie relative to the bacteria, the aphids and the ants, is it the smart, senior and humble grass that is playing with the aphids and their associates for its greater good!?

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