Plant resources and colony growth in an invasive ant: the importance of honeydew-producing Hemiptera in carbohydrate transfer across trophic levels.
Studies have suggested that plant-based nutritional resources are important in promoting high densities of omnivorous and invasive ants, but there have been no direct tests of the effects of these resources on colony productivity. We conducted an experiment designed to determine the relative importance of plants and honeydew-producing insects feeding on plants to the growth of colonies of the invasive ant Solenopsis invicta (Buren). We found that colonies of S. invicta grew substantially when they only had access to unlimited insect prey; however, colonies that also had access to plants colonized by honeydew-producing Hemiptera grew significantly and substantially (∼50%) larger. Our experiment also showed that S. invicta was unable to acquire significant nutritional resources directly from the Hemiptera host plant but acquired them indirectly from honeydew. Honeydew alone is unlikely to be sufficient for colony growth, however, and both carbohydrates abundant in plants and proteins abundant in animals are likely to be necessary for optimal growth. Our experiment provides important insight into the effects of a common tritrophic interaction among an invasive mealybug, Antonina graminis (Maskell), an invasive host grass, Cynodon dactylon L. Pers., and S. invicta in the southeastern United States, suggesting that interactions among these species can be important in promoting extremely high population densities of S. invicta.