Macronutrient content of plant-based food affects growth of a carnivorous arthropod.
Many arthropods engage in mutualisms in which they consume plant-based foods including nectar, extrafloral nectar, and honeydew. However, relatively little is known about the manner in which the specific macronutrients in these plant-based resources affect growth, especially for carnivorous arthropods. Using a combination of laboratory and field experiments, we tested (1) how plant-based foods, together with ad libitum insect prey, affect the growth of a carnivorous ant, Solenopsis invicta, and (2) which macronutrients in these resources (i.e., carbohydrates, amino acids, or both) contribute to higher colony growth. Access to honeydew increased the production of workers and brood in experimental colonies. This growth effect appeared to be due to carbohydrates alone as colonies provided with the carbohydrate component of artificial extrafloral nectar had greater worker and brood production compared to colonies deprived of carbohydrates. Surprisingly, amino acids only had a slight interactive effect on the proportion of a colony composed of brood and negatively affected worker survival. Diet choice in the laboratory and field matched performance in the laboratory with high recruitment to carbohydrate baits and only slight recruitment to amino acids. The strong, positive effects of carbohydrates on colony growth and the low cost of producing this macronutrient for plants and hemipterans may have aided the evolution of food-for-protection mutualisms and help explain why these interactions are so common in ants. In addition, greater access to plant-based resources in the introduced range of S. invicta may help to explain the high densities achieved by this species throughout the southeastern United States.