Uhusiano ajabu kati ya chungu na vipepeo.

Insects have evolved some of the most incredible relationships. I’m often surprised that we are not more aware of some of these relationships. One insect- insect relationship that fascinates me is the Lycaenid- Ant relationship. A relationship called myrmecophily- but in the field of guiding, understanding the behavior is always more important than learning terminology. Lycaenids are commonly known as blues, coppers & hairstreaks. If you don’t know what they look like check them out here.

So about 75% of the studied Lycenids have an intimate relationship with ants. For about half of them it is a fairly loose relationship that involves producing honeydew for ants and in return being tended and protected by the ants. For another third, the relationship is so important that these small butterflies would not be able to survive without the ants.

Let’s quickly review butterfly life cycle so that we’re all on the same page. Butterflies lay eggs on a plant and the eggs hatch into caterpillars. Caterpillars usually go through 5 stages called instars before they finally pupate and emerge as an adult. Lycaenid caterpillars usually start life feeding on the plant that they hatched on. Some of the species use chemical attractants and some of them use sound to attract ants. The ants begin to look after the caterpillar. Some species of caterpillar feed the ants honeydew from a gland on their back. Some of them have little tentacles that when extended tend to increase the ants tending them.

Some species of Lycenids do not bother attracting the ants in their first caterpillar stages but fall off the plant. They lie there until an ant finds it and begins to feed on the honeydew. Then the larvae begins to act like an ant larvae and instinctively the ant carries it back to the ant nest. Here the caterpillar becomes predatory, feeding on ant eggs & larvae. The caterpillar produces chemicals that deceive the ants into thinking it is just a big ant larvae so they do not attack it. It then pupates, again protected by the ants, and emerges as an adult.

1. Butterfly female is attracted to the host plant.
2. She lays her eggs.
3. Ant collects the caterpillar.
4. Caterpillar eating the ant eggs.
5. Ands looking after caterpillar.
Image source here.

One African species of Lycenid is closely related to one of the whistling thorn ants. The female butterfly looks for whistling thorns with Crematogaster mimosae and then lays its eggs one at a time on a different leaf. When the eggs hatch, the caterpillars are tended to by the ants and end up inside the pseudo-galls (domatia) where they then are also fed by food that the ants regurgitate. There is some evidence that the caterpillars also eat on ant larvae in desperate times.

You can read the scientific paper here.

Source article from www.safariguiding.com