Leaf-Cutter Ants

If you’ve ever seen a parade of leaf-cutter ants marching their harvest back to the nest, it’s a sight to behold. But that magnificent sight is only one small part of the story.

Those worker ants marching along may be part of a colony 5-10 million strong. Inside the nest there’s space for all the ants in the colony as well as chambers for nurseries, trash chambers, and more. Some nests can have thousands of chambers. Within the colony, each ant has a job, including the workers, those that defend the colony, trash gatherers, and the queen. There are other important jobs, but you’ll have to keep reading.

Photo by Filo Gèn’

When worker ants discover a suitable leafy tree, they leave a trail of pheromones from the nest to the source, for the others to follow. At the source, these ants use their knife-like jaws to cut or saw a leaf into pieces they can carry. And the pieces they do carry can be as much as 50x their own weight (comparably that would amount to an average person carrying a minivan!). Then they follow the trail of pheromones back to the nest.

Perhaps most amazing of all is that leaf-cutter ants do not eat the leaves they harvest. The leaves help grow a fungus garden. And that’s what the ants eat – the fungus! Now back to the other important jobs in the nest – those that grow and tend to this garden. Some ants’ job is to pick dangerous parasites off the leaf pieces before they are taken into the nest. Once in the nest, gardeners crush the leaves into moist pellets and add fecal droplets; then they tuck them into a garden chamber. As the fungus garden grows, some ants will remove pieces of fungus from dense areas and replant them in a new place. And still others watch over the garden and remove spores and hyphae of invading mold species.

And if all that is amazing enough, the ants doing the heavy lifting and marching are all female.