05 January, 2010

Really tiny dairy farmers with really tiny cows

Remember the tiny tigers? Now go down another level. Gardeners know that the problem with trails of ants on their beloved and treasured plants is … that those ants protect scale insects. And scale insects are a problem because they take the sap from MY Plants, and use it for THEMSELVES. GRRR!

But here at Elephant’s Eye we garden for wildlife. We share. Some for us, some for whatever wildlife is friendly. So put aside that grownup GRRR ants and scale insects mentality and come with me. Retrieve your childhood sense of wonder … here and now … Step down into Macroworld like Alice in Wonderland.


Start in your herb garden with basil. You grow it to use in the kitchen. Bees love it, and in our last garden late afternoon the flying crayfish would come. (In the USA you call them humming bird hawk moths? But if you look at it, it is really a soft, furry flying crayfish. That tail is more like a crayfish, than a crayfish tail is!)

Our dairy farmer is the Small Black Sugar Ant, Lepisiota capensis, as African as the Nguni. Full marks to this little creature who is able to take on the mighty Argentine ant – whose colonies are HUGE, according to the book.

Farmer Giles and Daisy

His cows are Soft Brown Scale, Coccus hesperidum. When young they are light brown and flat, when older they are domed and dark brown. And the black ones have parasites (down another level or 3!). Ants seek them out for their honeydew. They lack functional legs, the body is just a bag for eggs. These universal insects are related to cochineal. As a vegetarian I REALLY don’t want to eat red food dye, which is crushed bugs, do you? I’ll pass, on the food dye. I’d rather have food coloured food thanks. Shellac would also slot into this family.

Mending fences

Building a shelter to protect ‘cows’ from parasites and predators. We don’t need Anatolian sheepdogs to fend off the Cape leopard. These are milch cows, not woolly sheep. See how the ants remove the bark, to expose the channel of sap, to feed their livestock. A sustainable harvest of sap to produce honeydew for a model farmer.

Irrigation furrow

Remember the weaver bird’s nest. And the sociable weavers. Now meet the really tiny weavers. Again role models whose raw materials for building are sustainable. Nature provides fibre for these little ants, living on our perennial basil – what my mother called a basil TREE in the last garden. Over the years it does produce a graceful gnarled and (g)knotted ‘trunk’ and ‘branches’ with ‘growth rings’ where the plant was harvested (by the cook and flower arranger!)

Welcome to … our humble home!

The pictures are the Ungardener’s SuperMacros, and the facts are from ‘Field guide to Insects of South Africa by Mike Picker et. al. Updated 2004’

PS It is 11 in the morning and the temperature is already 33C on our shady verandah. That is 91F, when I was a child, before we metricated, we used to talk about, 90 in the shade.


  1. Once again, my eyes are opened to a new way of looking at things I normally ignore or take for granted. Ants as dairy herders/farmers puts a new perspective on insects. Even the soft brown scale, though troublesome, have a destiny to fulfill. The wonder of nature never ceases to amaze me. Thanks for sharing your corner of the world, Diana.

  2. Hello Diana,

    Wow! It is amazing what a different world awaits once we take the time to look closely. Your macro photos are so interesting. The little nest on the stem is just amazing.

  3. Wonderful! The more we stop to look, the more we see. And isn't it wonderful how relatively basic equipment can today give results that took a fortune's worth ten years ago! KEEP THEM MACROS COMING, UNGARDENER!

  4. Noelle - the first little nest I brushed off. Then I stopped to look at what I was looking at ... and we have ... a blog post!

    Sequoia Jack - our Ungardener is fascinated by things which I prefer over THERE. But he is also good at - Take a picture of this for me please?

  5. Fascinating close ups. I'm quite relaxed about ants except when I'm sitting in the conservatory and I see a trail leading onto a favourite plan. I know they are pointing the way to an irritating pest but asking them politely to go elsewhere never seems to work - I end up carrying the plant outside, hoping they will follow.

  6. How interesting, Diana, very educational. Our ants like to milk aphids by the thousands, especially in spring. We hit them with a hard stream of water from the hose, or more often a bucket of leftover soapy water from the kitchen which works very well and waters the plants at the same time. When shooting some macros in the greenhouse yesterday, we saw aphids on the plants that were invisible to the naked eye but showed when the pix were loaded onto the computer. We dashed in and pinched the offenders with a thumbnail then threw them out to the sub freezing temps. We used to say, 100 in the shade. HA


Photographs and Copyright

Photographs are from Diana Studer or Jurg Studer.
My Canon PowerShot A490

If I use your images or information, it will be clearly acknowledged with either a link to the website, or details of the book. If you use my images or words, I expect you to acknowledge them in turn.

Midnight in Darkest Africa

Midnight in Darkest Africa
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