Azteca Ants & Phorid Flies
Short-lived ant alarms can create a cascade.
Azteca instabiliscra are large forest ants that nest in the hollow trunks of trees. Nowadays they patrol coffee bushes; having hitched rides to inhabit every coffee-growing nation.
Azteca ants enjoy a mutualistic relationship with the green scale, which feeds off plants, including coffee. The green scale’s appetite for coffee plants earned them the name green coffee scale, and the enmity of coffee growers as a pest.
Azteca ants protect the green scale from predators and parasites, though coffee growers are simply beyond control. The green scale provides payback by secreting a sticky, sweet honeydew for the ants.
Lady beetles dine on green scales when they can get past bodyguard ants. Patrolling ants attack and kill adult beetles, as well as removing lady beetle eggs laid on ant-tended coffee plants.
Azteca ants are afflicted by phorid flies; a family of tiny humpbacked flies that resemble fruit flies. The best-known phorid is the coffin fly: famed for a fondness for human corpses. The world teeniest fly is a 0.4 mm phorid.
Phorids attack Azteca ants by laying eggs on the ant. When the eggs hatch, larvae make their way to the ant’s head, which feast on ant brain. The ant’s head falls off when the adult flies emerge.
Phorids stalk their prey by detecting Azteca on the move. Stationary ants are not a target.
A phorid fly attack prompts an Azteca pheromone alarm, warning other workers in the vicinity. Nearby ants respond by becoming catatonic. Colony activity drops by at least 50% for up to 2 hours.
Pregnant lady beetles detect the ant alarm scent and take advantage of the lull by laying their eggs at safe sites that offer plenty of food for their offspring. In contrast, as it affords them no opportunity, male beetles do not care about Azteca ant calls, and so pay the calls no mind.