Plant-derived differences in the composition of aphid honeydew and their effects on colonies of aphid-tending ants

Elizabeth G Pringle, Alexandria Novo, Ian Ableson, Raymond V Barbehenn, Rachel L Vannette
Ecology and Evolution 2014, 4 (21): 4065-79
In plant-ant-hemipteran interactions, ants visit plants to consume the honeydew produced by phloem-feeding hemipterans. If genetically based differences in plant phloem chemistry change the chemical composition of hemipteran honeydew, then the plant's genetic constitution could have indirect effects on ants via the hemipterans. If such effects change ant behavior, they could feed back to affect the plant itself. We compared the chemical composition of honeydews produced by Aphis nerii aphid clones on two milkweed congeners, Asclepias curassavica and Asclepias incarnata, and we measured the responses of experimental Linepithema humile ant colonies to these honeydews. The compositions of secondary metabolites, sugars, and amino acids differed significantly in the honeydews from the two plant species. Ant colonies feeding on honeydew derived from A. incarnata recruited in higher numbers to artificial diet, maintained higher queen and worker dry weight, and sustained marginally more workers than ants feeding on honeydew derived from A. curassavica. Ants feeding on honeydew from A. incarnata were also more exploratory in behavioral assays than ants feeding from A. curassavica. Despite performing better when feeding on the A. incarnata honeydew, ant workers marginally preferred honeydew from A. curassavica to honeydew from A. incarnata when given a choice. Our results demonstrate that plant congeners can exert strong indirect effects on ant colonies by means of plant-species-specific differences in aphid honeydew chemistry. Moreover, these effects changed ant behavior and thus could feed back to affect plant performance in the field.

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