Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Friday, May 1, 2015

Ants. Unlikely Pollinators

Some plants and insects go unnoticed most of the time. Often sitting under taller trees and shrubs in a woodland setting minding their own business is Euonymus americanus. Know by it's common name strawberry bush  or in my part of the world hearts a burstin', this bush comes into the spotlight in fall because of its incredible fruit which burst out of deep pink capsules and are eaten by songbirds and wild turkey. (warning: should not be ingested by humans as they are considered poisonous)

fall fruite of Euonymus americanus

In spring a careful observer will spy its little pale blossoms. As you can see they are not very eye catching and would go completely unnoticed if they weren't so abundant.


Look even closer and you will find there are ants sprawling all over the blooms. Red ants, black ants. It's bustling with activity.



And, these ants don't stay at one bloom for long. Scurrying along with a real sense of urgency.


Feeding on the nectar these blooms provide. And inadvertently pollinating? That is the question.


I can almost see some pollen grains sticking to the tiny hairs on the ants abdomen. It's easiest to see on the black ants. While these ants collect the energy rich nectar I see them vibrate their abdomen, possibly collecting and redistributing pollen.


Everything I read says that ants are not effective pollinators. They are more likely to take nectar without cross-pollinating flowers. Plus, some ants secrete a natural substance that protects them from bacterial and fungal infections acting like an antibiotic. Unfortunately for the flowers this secretion can also kill a pollen grain pretty quickly.


So are these social insects pollinators? Well, my Euonymus americanus was full of fruit last fall and as far as I can tell the ants are the only things pollinating these inconspicuous blooms.

8 comments:

  1. I love your series of photos here. Ants are fascinating creatures. I also love hearts-a-bustin. It is quite beautiful when filled with its interesting red fruit.

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    1. There are really pretty entertaining to watch. Normally we just see them scurrying around on the ground. Their behavior is very different when they are on blooms.

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  2. Good observation. There are plants that are only pollinated by ants.It really gives one a better perspective on them. I like your images catching them in action.

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    1. This plant really allows for good observation. The challenge was getting the ants on camera since they are such quick movers. Getting a somewhat sharp caption took some a great deal of patients.

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  3. I love that many natives are pollinated by ants ant help them move about the garden and naturalize....great photos and info Karin!

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    1. Thanks Donna. I have become more and more fascinated by the more unusual pollinators. Having a wildlife garden draws some very interesting insects.

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  4. Enjoyed your Master Garden program today. Working on getting more natives in my garden. Thank you for your inspiration

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    1. It was such a joy to speak to your intern class. So glad to hear you are adding more natives to your garden. It is a process but very doable. Over the years we have removed almost all the original plants installed by the builder and replaced them with native and wildlife friendly plants. If you have questions please contact me any time.

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