Myrmecophytes, meaning "ant plant," are plants that have a mutualistic relationship with ants that is so tightly interwoven that each species could perish without the other. These plants occur in tropical areas around the world and include various species of trees and epiphytes including some orchids and bromeliads.

     In Central America there grows a species of tree called the Swollen Thorn Acacia that has a very special relationship with an exceedingly fierce species of ant. The tree was named for its large, swollen, hollow thorns within which the ants make their nests. Most tropical forest trees have poisonous chemicals in their leaves to stop insects from feeding on them, but the Swollen Thorn Acacia’s leaves are edible and would soon be destroyed by insects if it were not for the ants. One of these ant colonies can have as many as 30,000 workers. The ants frantically patrol every inch of the tree and viciously bite and sting any insect or animal they find. Also, any vine climbing onto the tree or any young sapling growing under the tree is quickly cut off. This saves the tree from having to compete for sunlight and nutrients, which are scarce in the dense tropical forest. In return for their protection, the tree completely supports the ants. Not only does it provide a home, but it feeds them as well. The tree secretes a thick, sugar-rich solution, which the ants drink from organs called extra-floral nectaries located on the stems between the leaves. On the tips of some leaves are unique orange structures called Beltian bodies that are rich in protein, fats, and vitamins. The ants, to feed their larvae, harvest these.

     A similar situation occurs with the Cecropia tree, which also grows in Central America. This tree has hollow, bamboo-like stems and branches where the Azteca ants live. The Cecropia does not have nectaries, so the ants have found another way to take nectar from the tree. The ants tend herds of aphids on the tree’s stems and branches, which excrete juices in the form of honeydew, a fluid rich in sugars and other components that the ants utilize.


     Another ant plant, an epiphyte, grows in nutrient-destitute forests in Southeast Asia. It has hollow leaves in which a relatively non-aggressive species of ant lives. The ant’s function is not to protect the plant but to fertilize it. As the ants forage and dine, they produce large amounts of debris, such as unpalatable insect parts, which are stored in portions of the plant’s cavities. As this refuse breaks down into compost, roots from the plant grow into it to absorb valuable nutrients.


     By working together, these ants and plants are both able to survive. There is a lesson in this for us. If species so vastly different can work together toward a common goal, in their case survival, then surely true Christians can put aside their petty differences and work together in unity to finish God’s work! "Those who are truly converted will press together in Christian unity." Testimonies, vol. 9, 147. "Behold, how good and how pleasant [it is] for brethren to dwell together in unity!" Psalm 133:1.

David Arbour