Place, the garden. Time, summer. Dramatis personae, a couple of small brown garden-ants, and a lazy clustering colony of wee green ‘plant-lice,’ or ‘blight,’ or aphides. The exact scene is usually on the young and succulent branches of a luxuriant rose-bush, into whose soft shoots the aphides have deeply buried their long trunk-like snouts, in search of the sap off which they live so contentedly through their brief lifetime. To them, enter the two small brown ants, their lawful possessors; for ants, too, though absolutely unrecognised by English law (’de minimis non curat lex,’ says the legal aphorism), are nevertheless in their own commonwealth duly seised of many and various goods and chattels; and these same aphides, as everybody has heard, stand to them in pretty much the same position as cows stand to human herdsmen. Throw in for sole spectator a loitering naturalist, and you get the entire mise-en-scene of a quaint little drama that works itself out a dozen times among the wilted rose-trees beneath the latticed cottage windows every summer morning.
It is a delightful sight to watch the two little lilliputian proprietors approaching and milking these their wee green motionless cattle. First of all, the ants quickly scent their way with protruded antennae (for they are as good as blind, poor things!) up the prickly stem of the rose-bush, guided, no doubt, by the faint perfume exhaled from the nectar above them. Smelling their road cautiously to the ends of the branches, they soon reach their own particular aphides, whose bodies they proceed gently to stroke with their outstretched feelers, and then stand by quietly for a moment in happy anticipation of the coming dinner. Presently, the obedient aphis, conscious of its lawful master’s friendly presence, begins slowly to emit from two long horn-like tubes near the centre of its back a couple of limpid drops of a sticky pale yellow fluid. Honey-dew our English rustics still call it, because, when the aphides are not milked often enough by ants, they discharge it awkwardly of their own accord, and then it falls as a sweet clammy dew upon the grass beneath them. The ant, approaching the two tubes with cautious tenderness, removes the sweet drops without injuring in any way his little protege, and then passes on to the next in order of his tiny cattle, leaving the aphis apparently as much relieved by the process as a cow with a full hanging udder is relieved by the timely attention of the human milkmaid.