A Lesson in Symbiosis: “Friendly” Ants Protect Caterpillar from “Mean” Ants

In a remarkable display of symbiosis, the video below shows how nature’s systems work together.

A certain brand of  “friendly ant” slurps sugar syrup excreted from the body of a Lycaenid caterpillar.    When predatory ants (Fireants?  Hard to say.) arrive to snatch and eat the caterpillar, the friendly ants fight them off, helping preserve the future Blue butterfly to live another day.

This amazing relationship is sometimes referred to as mutualism, whereby each participant gets something out of the deal.   The caterpillar even communicates with the ants when it’s ready to excrete its sweet juices by squeaking and grunting:  “Come and get it, fellas!”  Of course the sound is inaudible to humans, but the ants hear it.

Two ants park at one of the sugar water secreting glands of a caterpillar.  Photo via naturalhistorymag.org

Two ants park at one of the sugar water secreting glands of a caterpillar. Photo via naturalhistorymag.org

Scientists believe that special glands scattered over the caterpillar give off  ”chemical appeasement signals” that subdue the ants, and encourage them to view the caterpillar as an organism NOT to be preyed upon.

Then the dorsal nectary organ secretes a nectarlike substance that the ants massage, tickle and lap up.  That probably feels pretty good to the caterpillar.  This creates a protected situation for the caterpillar, as the ants guard their food source.   Other ants have to back off, or fight for the right to tickle for juices.

Meanwhile, a pile of ants on a caterpillar also turns off flying predators like birds, since ants taste bitter to avian species.

Lycaenid butterfly

Lycaenid butterflies benefit from “bodyguard” ants that protect them from predators.  Photo via indianapublicmedia.org

Our friend Todd Stout, a butterfly enthusiast in Utah and founder of  the educational and highly accessible site, Raising Butterflies, called this amazing phenom to our attention.  Thanks, Todd.  He mentions that if you’re ever in the hunt for caterpillars, follow the ants on host plants.  They likely will lead you there.

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Want to Meet the Beetles? Better Hurry, Removal of Milkweed Beetles from San Antonio River’s Milkweed Patch Imminent

An invasion of red-and-black milkweed beetles have made a temporary eyesore of the San Antonio River’s celebrated Milkweed Patch on the Museum Reach.  The striking insects, whose colorful torsos suggest the patterns of a tiki mask, have moved into the 1200-square foot Tropical milkweed garden on the banks of the San Antonio River just south of the Pearl Brewery  in a classic play of nature’s cycles.

Milkweed Beetles have taken over the Milkweed Patch

Milkweed Beetles have taken over the Milkweed Patch

The beetles, which look like ladybugs on steroids, don’t bite, sting or carry diseases. They do, however, defoliate milkweed plants, and have left the highly trafficked stretch of the River with some unattractive bald spots.

Migrating Monarch butterflies moved through town earlier this spring, laying the first generation of eggs in their annual migration at the Milkweed Patch.  The resulting acrobatic caterpillars occupied the Patch, feasting on milkweed leaves, the Monarch butterfly host plant.  Late straggling Monarchs continue to mingle with our local colony but the pervasive milkweed beetle, Labidomera clivicollis, dominates.

Milkweed Patch going bald thanks to milkweed beetles

Milkweed Patch going bald thanks to milkweed beetles

Volunteers for the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (MLMP), a citizen scientist program based at the University of Minnesota and which aims to better understand the Monarch life cycle and migration, have noticed fewer Monarch caterpillars and chrysalises during their weekly observations as beetles consume the milkweed leaves.

Discussions ensued about possibly pruning the milkweeds, which typically die back in winters when a hard freeze occurs.   That didn’t happen this year.  But San Antonio River Authority staff determined a better approach would be to hand-remove the beetles, THEN prune the plants.

Milkweed beetles have defoliated the Milkweed Patch. But aren't they cute?

Milkweed beetles have defoliated the Milkweed Patch. But aren't they cute?

“We believe this to be a holistic management approach with minimal negative impact to the environment that is consistent with our commitment to the local community for the project, ” said Steven Schauer, Manager of External Communications at the San Antonio River Authority (SARA), which oversees maintenance of the area.   The Museum Reach stretch of the San Antonio River was designed as a manicured, urban park setting, unlike the Mission Reach section, which is managed as a native riparian restoration.

SARA deserves praise for working with MLMP  volunteers and resisting the use of pesticides to address the problem.   A round of pesticides would quickly rid the area of

Gulf Fritillary

Gulf Fritillary, photo courtesy NABA.org

beetles (and other plant pests) and would also jeopardize the Monarchs’ and other butterflies’ continued colonization of the River.  Just north of the Milkweed Patch is a huge Passionflower planting, where Gulf Fritillary butterflies have made their home and are breeding.

If you’d like to “meet the beetles,”  better do so in the next few days.  The critters will be less visible once the hand removal is accomplished.

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Austin’s Insecta Fiesta to Host World’s Largest Katydid and Butterfly Flyhouse with 500 Butterflies

Rotten bananas and grape Gatorade for feeding the butterflies?  Check.  Largest Katydid in the world for the insect petting zoo?  Delivered safe and sound.  Cockroach tractor pull assembled and swept?  Done.  Oh, and frozen crickets for the cricket spitting contest?  Almost time to time to thaw them out.

Assembling an Earth Day weekend celebration for the First Annual Insecta Fiesta in Austin has required  thousands of volunteer hours by more than 140 staff and volunteers. Yet final preparations for the daylong celebration of the most diverse species on the planet are almost complete.  The event takes place this Saturday, April 21, 11 AM -4 PM at the Brackenridge Field Labs,  3001 Lake Austin Boulevard.  It’s FREE.

Katydid or Katydidn't?  Insecta Fiesta to feature largest katydid in the world

Katydid or Katydidn't? Insecta Fiesta to feature largest katydid in the world --photo by Challiyil Eswaramangalath Vipin from Chalakudy, India via Wikimedia Commons

The inaugural bug fest, organized by The Texas Natural Science Center in Austin, will celebrate insects and anticipates a large crowd this Saturday.  More than 150 teachers from all over the state have registered for teacher training to be used in Texas classrooms.   Free parking and shuttle buses have been arranged at the LCRA  lot.  The educational event will feature a live butterfly house, a cricket spitting contest, cockroach races, entomophagy, or the exercise of eating insects for their inexpensive protein, and the largest, loudest Katydid on the planet.  “It’s the size of a small sparrow,” said KUT’s John Aielli when the creature paid a visit to his radio show on Thursday.

Why celebrate insects?

“They’re so under appreciated,” says Dr. John Abbott, Curator of Entomology for the Texas Natural Science Center and a chief organizer of the event.  “Insects tie all our ecosystems together.  They’re found everywhere, except in the open ocean, in every habitat and microhabitat.   They dominate the planet and they literally tether the ecosystems,”  he says.

And yet given their pervasive presence in our food, water, air and earth, insects have not received their fair share of conservation attention.   Some would argue that if Pandas disappeared, it wouldn’t matter much;  but if certain insects were extinct–bees, for example–the world would be irrevocably changed for the worse.  “It’s more important than ever to understand the impact of climate change and habitat destruction on insects,” says Dr. Abbott.

The Texas Butterfly Ranch is a sponsor of the celebration.  With the help of Flutterby Gardens of Manatee and funding from Austin’s Peggy and Matt Winkler, we’ll help supply butterflies for a butterfly house that will include 500 live lepidoptera.

Cricket spitting, a questionable competition in which one inserts a cricket in mouth and then spits it out, will also be a highlight.   The cricket spit the furthest wins the competition.  The “sport” has been popularized by Purdue University’s annual indoor Bug Bowl with a record of 32 feet.  Since the Insecta Fiesta contest will be the first OUTDOOR cricket spitting contest, whoever wins the competition can claim to set a new Guinness Book of World Record.

Other insect activities:

  • Insect Petting  Zoo 
  • Insect Cooking/Eating Tent  
  • Live Insect-Themed Music  
  • Cricketspitting Contest  
  • Cockroach Races 
  • Butterfly Garden/Flyhouse
  • Insect Safari
  • Austin Bike Zoo
  • Insect Workshops for Teachers to earn CPEs
  • Pond Dipping
  • Forensic Entomology
  • Arts/Crafts

The free K–12 teacher training workshop offers six hours CPE credit and curriculum materials correlated to the Science TEKS. Teachers will learn how to use insects to teach about animal adaptations, ecosystems, evolution, and more.   Register for the workshop here. Contact Christina Cid with questions about the teacher training.

Insecta Fiesta this Saturday 11-4 at Brackenridge Field Labs

Insecta Fiesta this Saturday 11-4 at Brackenridge Field Labs in Austin

WHAT:         Insecta Fiesta

WHEN:         Saturday, April 21, 11 AM – 5 PM.  FREE.

WHERE:       Lake Austin Center – Brackenridge Field Lab 3001 Lake Austin Blvd.
Austin, Texas 78703
PARKING:  Free at the LCRA lot, with shuttles to entrance

Hope to see you there!

Like what you’re reading?  Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the righthand navigation bar of this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam. 

Save the Date: Insecta Fiesta Austin to Feature Live Butterfly House, Cricket Spitting Contest, Cockroach Races

The Texas Natural Science Center in Austin will host a celebration of insects April 21 in the form of the First Annual Insecta Fiesta.   The FREE educational event will feature a live butterfly house, a cricket spitting contest, cockroach races, entomophagy, or the exercise of eating insects for their inexpensive protein, teacher training, and much more.

Insects are cool.  Really!

Insects are cool. Really!

Those of us who took Botany for Gardeners at the University of Texas fondly remember the  Brackenridge Field Lab, an 88-acre spread which hugs the shores of Lake Austin and serves as the site of the bug fest.   The outdoor laboratory, considered a premier urban field research station for helping academics and others to study climate change, invasive species, biodiversity, animal behavior, evolution and more, is generally closed to the public.

But on Saturday, April 21, the facility opens its gates in an attempt to make insects more accessible and understood.

Why celebrate insects?

“They’re so under appreciated,” says Dr. John Abbott, Curator of Entomology for the Texas Natural Science Center and a chief organizer of the event.  “Insects tie all our ecosystems together.  They’re found everywhere, except in the open ocean, in every habitat and microhabitat.   They dominate the planet and they literally tether the ecosystems,”  he says.

Malachite Butterfly looks like a green Monarch --photo courtesy NABA

Malachite Butterfly looks like a green Monarch --photo courtesy NABA

Insects have always captivated people because of their beauty and intrigue, says Dr. Abbott, adding  that we find images of them everywhere:  on plates, drapes, earrings, stamps, tattoos, t-shirts.

And yet given their pervasive presence in our food, water, air and earth, insects have not received their fair share of conservation attention.   Some would argue that if Pandas disappeared, it wouldn’t matter much;  but if certain insects were extinct–bees, for example–the world would be irrevocably changed for the worse.  “It’s more important than ever to understand the impact of climate change and habitat destruction on insects,” says Dr. Abbott.

The Texas Butterfly Ranch is a sponsor of the celebration.  With the help of Flutterby Gardens of Manatee and funding from Austin’s Peggy and Matt Winkler, we’ll help supply butterflies for a butterfly house that will include 500 live lepidoptera.

Monarchs, Gulf Fritillaries, Painted Ladies, Red Admirals, Swallowtails–even some sexy Malachites, which we don’t see all that often even though they’re native to South Texas–are scheduled to be flying in a converted greenhouse that organizers and volunteers have spent weeks preparing.  
Cricket spitting contest -- photo by www.purdue.edu

Cricket spitting contest -- photo by www.purdue.edu

Cricket spitting, a questionable competition in which one inserts a cricket in mouth and then spits it out, will also be a highlight.   The cricket spit the furthest wins the competition.  The “sport” has been popularized by Purdue University’s annual indoor Bug Bowl with a record of 32 feet.  Since the Insecta Fiesta contest will be the first OUTDOOR cricket spitting contest, whoever wins the competition can claim to set a new Guinness Book of World Record.

Other insect activities:

  • Insect Petting  Zoo 
  • Insect Cooking/Eating Tent  
  • Live Insect-Themed Music  
  • Cricketspitting Contest  
  • Cockroach Races 
  • Butterfly Garden/Flyhouse
  • Insect Safari
  • Austin Bike Zoo
  • Insect Workshops for Teachers to earn CPEs
  • Pond Dipping
  • Forensic Entomology
  • Arts/Crafts

A free K–12 teacher training workshop will also be offered during Insecta Fiesta. Teachers will receive six hours CPE credit and curriculum materials correlated to the Science TEKS. Teachers will learn how to use insects to teach about animal adaptations, ecosystems, evolution, and more.   Register for the workshop here. Contact Christina Cid with questions about the teacher training.

WHAT:         Insecta Fiesta
WHEN:         Saturday, April 21, 11 AM – 5 PM.  FREE.
WHERE:       Lake Austin Center – Brackenridge Field Lab 3001 Lake Austin Blvd.
Austin, Texas 78703
PARKING:  Free at the LCRA lot, with shuttles to entrance

Hope to see you there!

No Fireworks this Fourth of July, But How About Those Synchronous Fireflies?

In our part of the world, drought and wildfires have hindered butterfly season as well as Fourth of July celebrations.  The Austin Butterfly Forum announced at their June meeting that their recent butterfly count was the bleakest ever.  “We had 25 species and 26 people, compared to the usual 40 or so,” said Dr. Dan Hardy, program chair of the event.  “We’re just waiting out the weather.”

Eastern Swallowtail Hatches in June after forming chrysalis in October the prior year

This Eastern Swallowtail hatched this week after nine months as a chrysalis

Cities and counties from Austin to San Antonio and well into the Texas Hill Country–the collective place we think of as the Texas Butterfly Ranch–have declared fireworks and burn bans this season.    Rain will come, but until then we must lay low, minding our watering schedules, celebrating the occasional Swallowtail (the one picture here hatched this week, after “overwintering” since October!), and keeping our fingers crossed that a hurricane system will restore the water tables in time for the Monarch migration this fall.

Take a look.   They’re not Christmas lights.  They’re fireflies.

Given the circumstances, this is a year to celebrate Independence Day with some natural fireworks like those featured in a recent New York Times story on the synchronous fireflies of the Great Smoky Mountains.  Apparently the males of this particular species blink their lights in unison every evening for two weeks in June to make it easy for the females to find them. The boasting boy insects exist only in Southeastern Asia and the southern U.S.

Happy Fourth of July and enjoy the show.