Ant Ecology | Old Dog, New Tricks


I love that nature is an inexhaustible source of solace, beauty and education for me–and that it is so easy to approach in our chosen location and style of living here in Floyd County.And I love the fact that I can still share my discoveries of aesthetic or natural history interest with “field trippers” from around the world who share the journey with me through the weblog.

I’d rather you have been there to see it, but next best thing, I can show and tell.

I remember being told in my Pteridology summer course at Mt. Lake Biological Station (back in the Pleistocene era) that Bracken Fern (pictured here) was perhaps the most world-wide of plants, found on every continent. So, it has been around for some while, and done quite well for itself. I wondered back then what made it so successful. Now, I have one clue towards an answer.

Every Braken fiddlehead in the sandy meadow along the Blue Ridge Parkway earlier this week had one or more Carpenter Ants stationed on its three-part unfurling frond. This certainly was more than a random search for food or mates, I figured, and when I got home, I looked it up.

Take a look at the right-hand image. See the wet black spot near the spot where the three prongs of the fern leaf come together? It looks rather like the eye of this otherworldly bird-like creature.

It is a NECTARY, not unlike what many flowers offer their insect visitors. Except, of course in this case, there are no flowers. The ant gets a sweet treat. It seems what the fern gets is protection from other predatory insects while it is in this tender, vulnerable stage.

In our meadow over where Nameless and Goose Creeks come together, there are NO ants on the mature fronds of Bracken Fern. By then, the plant is tough and able to take care of itself. Maybe this association accounts for some of the success of this worldwide fern.

So whaddaya know. The old biology watcher has learned something new about this amazing world–a living planet that has been equipped to take care of itself so very well in such interesting, cooperative ways.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Hm-m-m, very interesting!! Is that why there are ants and wasps all over my peony buds? Nectar?