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Did you know that ants actually keep and “milk” livestock? Evolutionary ecologist Aniek Ivens shares this tidbit and more alluring ant facts in this episode.

Listen and learn

  • How ants practice agriculture by raising a specific fungus species, even weeding and fertilizing their crops,
  • How the ecological role of insects connects ants, aphids, and tree roots, and
  • How ant and aphid microbiomes show species specificity, working to maintain a healthy ant life cycle

Researcher and evolutionary ecologist Aniek Ivens runs projects both in The Netherlands and New York. Her work centers on the evolution and ecology of cooperation, and, as she explains to listeners, ants are therefore the perfect animal to study. The ant colony structure works as a superorganism: “ants are like cells in the body of the colony,” she says, with the ant queen as vital organ.

As a kid she was fascinated by ants and she brings that childlike fascination alongside her rigorous research. She offers listeners amazing time-lapse images of an ant’s life that are startlingly sophisticated, from the well-known leaf cutter species that raises a special fungus to other ant species that work with aphids in a type of exchange for services.

We know aphids as pests, but some ant and aphid species depend on each other for life. Aphids actually live inside some ant nests, feeding off of the sap of tree roots. These aphids excrete a sort of “honeydew” or sugar water and the ants eat this excretion, but not as an afterthought. The ants actually tap the aphid’s abdomen when they are ready to eat, almost like humans milking a cow. In turn, the ants protect the aphids from other pests and clean them—those sugary substances can get moldy quickly, which could kill the aphid.

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The ants keep the aphids and their area clean and mold-free. What’s really fascinating is this is just the tip of the ant-aphid specialization.

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Aniek continues explaining how the microbiomes of both insects play a role, how the microbiome of an ant species in Japan is similar to the same in New York state, and how she’s working to finish a study using ant and aphids as a model species for microbiome research.

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Listen in for more astounding ant facts.

For more about her work and for contact information, see her website:

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