30 Jan

Ant Meets Butterfly

butterfly

Carpenter ants love wood. If the studs in the walls of your home are made of wood, then carpenter ants could find a way to live behind your sheetrock. Like termites, carpenter ants will make extensive homes within wood. If your home has carpenter ants, their damage can be as severe as the destruction from a termite infestation. The difference between them is the ants do not eat wood. Ants live on the food their scouts can find. Any insect that is too slow to get away will become dinner for the ants. Even the fierce insects and arachnids around your yard, like praying mantises and spiders, will be eaten by hordes of hungry ants. Nature has created some fantastic predators, few things can compare to ants.

Bet on the Butterfly
Now imagine the soft winged, fragile bodied butterfly. Against the sharp mandibles of a hungry ant, the butterfly would be torn to bite sized bits. The best defense a butterfly has against ants is to fly away fast. That is, unless you are a specific type of butterfly. If you were in Japan or south China and had a chance to meet Niphanda fusca, you would think it looks like any other butterfly. What set it apart from its winged relatives is a devious streak large enough to match the hostility of the ant.

Funky Pheromones
The story starts with an egg. An Adult butterfly finds vegetation near a carpenter ant colony and leaves an assortment of tiny eggs. Niphanda fusca emerges as a caterpillar and lives on the vegetation. The caterpillar will also eat honey dew (poop) from aphids. Nature can be nasty. Carpenter ants protect the plants near their colony because they have a sweet-poop tooth for aphid leavings as well. Imagine owning a herd of milk cows and you might understand the carpenter ant. They protect their aphid cows from anything. When a carpenter ant finds a Niphanda fusca caterpillar, the caterpillar emits a pheromone that confused the ant. The confusion is so absolute, that the ant carries the fat caterpillar back to its nest.

The Confused Colony
If you are worried for the little caterpillar, don’t be. Niphanda fusca is a parasite that drains the resources of the ant colony. Because of the pheromones, the entire colony thinks the caterpillar is one of their young. Ants rely on smells more than eyesight. If you wanted to sell ant contacts and eye glasses, you could make a fortune, except their payment might be in aphid crap. The carpenter ants feed the caterpillar as much as their own pupa. To fortify the parasitic relationship, the caterpillar gives off a sweet mixture of glucose, fructose and amino acids; everything that makes your energy drink delicious. Within the ant colony the caterpillar is protected from any predator. Once the caterpillar is sufficiently fattened, it forms a chrysalis, and an adult butterfly soon emerges.

Nature is a ferocious mistress. Even the most violent and destructive insect force can be thwarted by the craftiness of a simple butterfly. No one suspects the butterfly.

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