1. The consequences to plants of ant–aphid mutualisms, particularly those involving invasive ants, are poorly studied. Ant–aphid mutualisms may increase or decrease plant fitness depending on the relative cost of herbivory by ant-tended aphids versus the relative benefit of increased ant suppression of other (non-aphid) herbivores.
2. We conducted field and greenhouse experiments in which we manipulated the presence and absence of cotton aphids (Aphis gossypii) on cotton plants to test the hypothesis that a mutualism between cotton aphids and an invasive ant, the red imported fire ant (Solenopsis invicta), benefits cotton plants by increasing fire ant suppression of caterpillars. We also manipulated caterpillar abundance to test whether the benefit of the mutualism varied with caterpillar density.
3. We found that more fire ants foraged on plants with cotton aphids than on plants without cotton aphids, which resulted in a significant reduction in caterpillar survival and caterpillar herbivory of leaves, flower buds, and bolls on plants with aphids. Consequently, cotton aphids indirectly increased cotton reproduction: plants with cotton aphids produced 16% more bolls, 25% more seeds, and 10% greater seedcotton mass than plants without aphids. The indirect benefit of cotton aphids, however, varied with caterpillar density: the number of bolls per plant at harvest was 32% greater on plants with aphids than on plants without aphids at high caterpillar density, versus just 3% greater at low caterpillar density.
4. Our results highlight the potential benefit to plants that host ant–hemipteran mutualisms and provide the first experimental evidence that the consequences to plants of an ant–aphid mutualism vary at different densities of non-aphid herbivores.