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Phenology Report: How ants transplant plants and plants fatten ants

Twelve bloodroots bloom in St. Peter, Minnesota on April 15, 2024.
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A variable field ant carries a seed through the forest floor on May 7, 2023 in Goodhue County.

KAXE Staff Phenologist John Latimer provides his weekly assessment of nature in Northern Minnesota. This is the week of April 23, 2024.

The ant-ics of spring ephemerals

This week, John was all excited about insect-plant partnerships. He started with the surprising friendship between bloodroot and ants. This relationship is known as myrmecochory.

Imagine a forest floor city where wildflowers hail little ant taxis to move the plants' seeds to a nice new spot. When they arrive to their destination, the ants are paid for their services with delicious snacks.

Here’s how it works: Bloodroots and other spring wildflowers package their seeds with a little “gift" for their ant neighbors. This gift is a small packet of energy-rich oil that is stuck to the side of the seed. (Want another new vocabulary word? This package is called an elaiosome.) The plant then puts out an ant-attracting scent.

Ants, always busy looking for food for their larvae, will smell the signal, harvest the bloodroot seed, and bring it back to their nest. There, they will chew off the elaiosome, which is then eaten by the ant or fed to the larvae. Once the elaiosome is removed, the seed serves no further use to the ants – they take it into their trash heap, called a midden, and dump it there.

In the midden, the seed finds a great place to take root. It’s likely been moved by the ants several feet from the parent plant, where it won’t compete with or shade out its parent. The midden itself offers a great microhabitat. It has light, fluffy soil and lots of nutrients: ideal for a young seed to establish and grow. It also comes with its own ant army, which helps keep the area free of troublesome pests.

Some spring flowers in Minnesota that have evolved this partnership with ants include trilliums, violets, bloodroot, hepaticas, Dutchman’s breeches, wild ginger, and trailing arbutus. Thank you, ants!

Topics:

  • Introduction (0:00-0:25) 
  • High times for phenologists (0:25-0:53) 
  • Plant development (0:53-12:29) 
    • Bloodroot and ants: myrmecochory (0:53-3:22) 
    • Dandelion (3:22-3:44) 
    • Bumblebees and pussywillows (3:44-6:38) 
    • Trembling and big-tooth aspens (6:38-9:57) 
    • Balsam poplar (9:57-10:08) 
    • Tamarack (10:08-10:51) 
    • Black ash (10:51-10:57) 
    • Honeysuckle and red elderberry (10:57-12:29) 
  • Insects (0:53-3:32, 3:44-6:38) 
    • Bloodroot and ants: myrmecochory (0:53-3:22) 
    • Bumblebees and pussywillows (3:44-6:38) 
  • Birds (12:29-16:23) 
    • Song Sparrow and Yellow-rumped Warbler (12:29-13:23) 
    • Fox Sparrow (13:23-12:38) 
    • Eagle nest update (12:38-14:24) 
    • Ravens and eagles (14:24-15:01) 
    • Crow vs. Merlin (15:01-15:26) 
    • Wilson’s Snipe (15:26-16:23) 
  • Conclusion (16:23-17:39) 

That does it for this week! For more phenology, subscribe to our Season Watch Newsletter or visit the Season Watch Facebook page.

Funding for this project was provided by the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund as recommended by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR).

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Charlie Mitchell (she/they) joined KAXE in February of 2022. Charlie creates the Season Watch Newsletter, produces the Phenology Talkbacks show, coordinates the Phenology in the Classroom program, and writes nature-related stories for KAXE's website. Essentailly, Charlie is John Latimer's faithful sidekick and makes sure all of KAXE's nature/phenology programs find a second life online and in podcast form.<br/><br/><br/>With a background in ecology and evolutionary biology, Charlie enjoys learning a little bit about everything, whether it's plants, mushrooms, or the star-nosed mole. (Fun fact: Moles store fat in their tails, so they don't outgrow their tunnels every time conditions are good.)