A study in the rural parts of South America shows that kids ask if they can keep those ants as pets. This is because children get easily attracted to leafcutter ants due to their backs bearing large leaves. However, it is not a good idea to keep an ant as a pet.
The leafcutter ants are a group of 47 species belonging to two basic genera; Atta and Acromyrmex. These are leaf chewing and fungus-growing ants thriving in tropical regions.
The ants only forage fresh vegetation to act as a nutritional substrate for fungus. They have a lot in common in their anatomy. There however are external differences that can help tell them apart.
Leafcutter ants are second to humans’ information of societies on earth. They form the largest as well as most complex ant societies in the animal kingdom on earth. Within a few years, it is possible for their underground nests to grow to over 30 meters containing 8000000 individual ants.
Habitat: Where do leafcutter ants live?
The leafcutter ants thrive in tropical rain forests as well as semi tropical forests. They can be found in central and south America as well as in some parts of the North America.
Those that are found in dry parts are well adapted for the area. They have more pairs of spines on their thorax with the upper surface of their abdomen being bumpy.
The ants live in large groups of related ants. These groups are known as colonies and could be made up of millions of ants. In each colony, there are queen ants, workers, soldiers, and males.
Queens spend their lives laying eggs while the workers are sterile. The soldiers are sterile females whose work is to defend the colony. The males have wings and are small. They tend to fly from one colony to the other so as to mate with the queen.
Leafcutter ant facts
leafcutter ants are dark-brown in color. The various ants vary in color depending on which group of the ants they fall under. The worker ants, swarmers and queen ant will all have varying features. Among some facts about the leafcutter ants include:
- There are estimated to about 40-47 species of these ants
- The ants do not eat on the vegetation they cut.
- Their main food includes fungus which they grow within their ants
- The ants can carry up to ten times their weight
- Their jaws are strong enough to cut leather
- The soldier ants were used by the rainforest Indians to stitch wounds
- They always leave a clear trail as they move
- During the heat of the day in summer, the ants remain inside their nests and only emerge at night to forage.
- The leaf cutting ants do not feed on the leaves they cut but instead use them to grow fungus for them to feed on.
The workers have a thorax with three prominent pairs of spines. They also have a pair of spines located at the back of their head. These differences are best portrayed in pictures.
Those ants are quite an industrious lot with the ability to carry weight that is many times more than theirs. One weird leafcutter ants fact is that they do not feed on the vegetation they cut.
leafcutter ants diet
The leafcutter ants feed on fungus and not on the leave they cut. They cultivate the fungus within their nests and feed them using pulp made from the leaves they cut. As such, the fungus can only remain alive where there are ants to feed them.
The ants also feed on the fungus making the relationship mutual. For one to exist, they need the presence of the other. When budding, the queen will carry some of the fungi to go and cultivate in the new nest.
Their sharp mandibles are used to cut off leaves from plants. These leaves are then carried to their place of residence on their back. They are well adapted to carry up to ten times their weight.
What do the leafcutter ants eat?
The leafcutter ant chews the leaves into a pulp after they are brought into their nests. This is then mixed with the ants’ excretion resulting in decomposition of the pulp. The growth of some fungus then follows. The fungus that is formed is what the leaf cutter ants feed on. They do not feed on the fresh leaves that they cut.
The leafcutter colony can be seen traveling in long trails deep into the forests. This they do in search of leaves. Those ants are rarely attracted to blood or dead animals since they tend to concentrate on vegetation.
They tend to leave a scent along the trail line to ensure they can find their way back to the nest as well as ensure that they can all find their way to the source of leafy vegetation.
Leafcutter ant colony
The leaf cutting ants are a social lot. They live in huge underground groups that are made up of related ants. In each colony there is a queen or queens whose work is to lay eggs.
It is the work of the worker ants within the colony to feed the queen as well as tend to the eggs. They are also responsible for collecting leaves and growing the fungus and consist of majority of the population.
The soldier ants who are sterile females are responsible for defending the colony. They also defend the trails for the workers collecting leaves. The males in the colony have wings. They are responsible for mating with the queens after which they die.
1. Leaf Cutter Ant Queen
The queen is an important member of the ants’ colony. They begin their life with wings which are used while mating. Once mating has been done, the queen will fly back to the nest where the wings will fall off. The rest of her life is spent laying eggs.
At other times, the queen may fly away to start a new colony. When this happens, she carries along with some fungus in her mouth to go and start a new fungus garden. She will also take along some worker ants.
2. leafcutter ants mutualism
The leafcutter societies are based on what is known as anti-fungus mutual dependence. The different species use different types of fungus but all belong to the Lepiotaceae family.
The ants will actively cultivate the fungus. They feed them using the pulp they make from the leaves that they have cut. The fungus farms are kept free from molds and pests. The ants on the other hand feed on the fungus.
This mutual relationship between the two is augmented further by the symbiotic relationship between the ants and some bacteria that grow within them. These secrete chemicals making the ants act as a portable antimicrobial.
3. Leafcutter ants and fungus
The ants are sensitive enough and can sense how the fungus react to various types of vegetation. They tend to do this by detecting chemical signals from it.
Where there are toxic leaves being carried to the nest, the worker ants pick the signal and stop collecting it. Biologically, the fungus needs the ants as much as the ants need the fungus for them all to stay alive.
Leafcutter ants predators
Insight: The leafcutter ants have a number of predators who eat them. These play a role in their control. Frogs, spiders, ant lions, birds, and toads all eat them. In most cases, the predators make use of their mandibles or sticky tongues to lick them out of their nests.
This way thousands are swallowed at a time. Some people also eat the ants as they are a great source of proteins. Attacks on the colonies are not taken sitting back. The soldier ants will always defend the colony and at times outdo the enemy.
How to get rid of leafcutter ants
Getting rid of leafcutter ants requires that one tries out the different forms of control. This includes the use of residual insecticides. They are sprayed on the nesting mounds as well as on the ant’s trail. One could use ant baits to get rid of them as well.
1. Adhesive compound
For a more proactive technique on stopping leafcutter ants from destroying vegetation, surround the base of the plant with a smooth plastic bag that has been coated with an adhesive.
This way, the ants get stuck on the adhesive compound en route to the top and before they climb up to cut the leaves. This though is only possible for some landscape plants.
There are limited methods through which one can kill the leafcutter ants. Their natural enemies are also very few which makes killing them a hard task. This also ensures that they are not endangered despite their widespread damage to vegetation.
These fall into different categories such as organochlorines, fumigants and slow acting baits. The fact that they only eat home grown fungus makes them even harder to poison.
3. Essential oils
If you do not like the use of pesticides, you can try some of the natural ways of repelling ants because some of those can work very well out door.
One of the best ways to derail them is to apply some peppermint oil on their trails. Here how to use why peppermint for ants works best in repelling them.
To repel and keep leafcutter ants away from your garden, drop some peppermint essential oil on their trails. They do not like the smell of peppermint oil and this will stop them from coming back using the same trail.
Here is a video showing how the leaf cutter ants interact:
- Ants: Mutualism and leaf cutter ants
- Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute: Agricultural ants in Panama