March, the month of the pollinator that doesn’t fly!

Ants, (Hymenoptera: Formicidae)  a quiet pollinator with many roles.

Pollination by an ant is called myrmecophily, while seed dispersal by ants is called myrmecochory.  Is the ant’s journey one of an unaware “pollinator” who gathers and deposits pollen as she wanders through and around plants or is the journey part of the different primary mission of gathering food for the colony?

There is research to suggest that there is both a haphazard and intentional symbiotic relationship between the ants and plants.  Here I am highlighting the task of myrmecochory.

Ants are main transport system for the seed dispersal of the native “spring ephemeral” plants of the Northeast – the Asarum canadese (wild ginger), Sanguinary canadensis (Bloodroot), Trillium and some Viola (violets).  Here, the ants are on the specific mission to find food for their young, and as a result, new communities of ephemerals are germinated:

The seeds of spring ephemerals bear fatty external appendages called eliaosomes. The insects, attracted to the elaiosomes, carry the booty back to their nests, where the lipid-rich food source is consumed by their young. The unharmed seeds are thrown into a midden, a rich, composting stew that stimulates germination. A single ant colony may collect as many as a thousand seeds over a season. While the volume is great, the distance is not; on average, a seed is carried just two meters from the parent plant. Because offspring remain so local (unlike plants dispersed by birds or wind), habitat fragmentation is a major threat to the survival of spring ephemerals. Once these plants are gone from the forest, it is rare that they return.”

Myrmecophily, on the other hand is a more complicated story.  Since most ants do not fly, they spend their time crawling in and around flowers, searching for the nectar, but do not effectively cross-pollinate flowers that they visit and actually can damage any cross pollination:

Researchers have discovered that some ants are not important pollinators, even though they visit flowers and may have pollen grains attach to their bodies. These scientists discovered that some ants and their larvae secrete a natural substance that acts as an antibiotic. This secretion protects ants from bacterial and fungal infections. Unfortunately for the flowers which are visited by these ants, this secretion also kills a pollen grain very rapidly when it comes in contact with this natural antibiotic.” 

There is still another role for these amazing creatures, that of guardian!  Many tropical plants have nectar outside of the flowers to attract ants. These plants rely on the defensive capabilities (biting and stinging) of the ants to protect them from various kinds of attack from other insects including nectar robbers.”

(Interesting research done by David Kenfack,  for the scientific journal Adansonia focusing on a genus of trees of the mahogany family):

Another interesting site for more information:

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