You may know the classic story about how ants and aphids live together in an ecological partnership. Aphids feed ants their excess sugars in the form of honeydew, and in return ants protect the aphids against predators and carry them to new host plants. The relationship forms a sort of miniature version of humans and their domesticated livestock.

What you might not know is that the ant-aphid partnership extends, and even flourishes, well below the soil surface. A great deal of ant ranching takes place underground, sometimes in vast, sprawling networks spanning the root systems of several trees. These hidden interactions are less amenable to study than their above-ground counterparts and are consequently much less understood. Yet they are ubiquitously underfoot, noticed only when winged reproductives of the ranching ant species emerge in numbers to take flight, or when a plant disease vectored by these underground insects begins cutting into crop production.

Below, I share a selection of photos of these mysterious subterranean systems. They span many species on several continents, but look closely and you will see the ants and their livestock show convergently similar adaptations to cramped soil interspaces: short legs, pale coloration, reduced eyes.