Old MacDonald Was An Ant
Sure you've heard of ant farms, but have you ever heard of farmer ants?
Sure you’ve heard of ant farms, but have you ever heard of farmer ants?
Typically, ants are thought of as creatures that horde food. You might picture them stealing breadcrumbs from picnics or cookouts. Or maybe you think of the story of the ant and the grasshopper, in which the ant stores up grain for winter while the grasshopper plays. Well, you might be surprised to know that some ants farm. Wild, right?
Take a look at two different types of farmer ants — the herder ant and the leaf-cutter ant.
Imagining ants roping and branding tiny steers? It’s a fun mental image, for sure, but herder ants (pictured at the top of the article) prefer aphids to cows and bulls.
Aphids: the cattle of herder ants.
If you have a vegetable garden, you’re probably familiar with aphids. They’re known for wreaking havoc on crops, especially tomatoes. You also probably know that one of their natural predators is the ladybug.
Unlike ladybugs, herder ants don’t typically eat the actual aphids. Instead, they prefer to dine on the sugary excrement that aphids leave behind after they feed on plants. This substance is called “honeydew.”
Where does the herding come in?
Like ants, aphids live in colonies. Herder ants will set up camp near an existing aphid colony. That way, they have a readily available source of honeydew.
The ants emit a special chemical from their feet to mark their trails and territory. Some research seems to indicate this chemical footprint also has a hypnotizing effect on the aphids and allows the ants to control them. Other research suggests aphids are attracted to the ants because they form a mutually beneficial — or symbiotic — relationship.
But these farmer ants don’t stop there. They don’t want to lose their meal tickets. So some herder ants will actually bite off the wings of the aphids so that they can’t fly away. It’s kind of like the electric fence of the agricultural ant world.
Other types of herder ants, however, depend solely on the aphids for food and protect the aphids from other predators, such as ladybugs. These aphids actually live in mounds with the ants and rely on the ants for their survival.
It’s natural to assume that these farmer ants eat leaves. However, while they do rely on leaves as a food source, it’s not the leaves themselves leaf-cutter ants are eating.
Fungal Farmer Ants
True to their names, leaf-cutter ants do cut leaves. They use their mandibles — which are serrated like a kitchen knife — to cut the leaves off of trees. And you might be shocked to learn that they can strip a tree bare over the course of several hours.
Once the leaves are harvested, the leaf-cutter ants carry the foliage back to their mounds. Here, they chew the leaves, which when mixed with the ants’ saliva, results in the ideal habitat of a specific type of fungus. This fungus is stored and cultivated in special chambers of the ants’ mound and it’s what the leaf-cutter ants live off of.
In any colony, regardless of the type of ants that make it up, there are specific groups of ants that have specialized functions. This is called the hierarchy. The hierarchy of leaf-cutter ants is especially fascinating because of the jobs that the ants within the colony have.
The queen, for example, lays eggs. She’ll nourish her first brood until they’re mature. After that, she’ll have workers take care of future broods.
Other members of the colony are the foragers that travel out into the woods, cut the leaves and bring them back to the nest. While they’re out and about gathering the leaves that help cultivate that precious fungus, they need protection. So there are larger ants that keep the foragers, as well as the nest, safe.
As for the fungus, it’s tended to by farmer ants who literally act as farmers. They care for the fungus, harvest it and distribute it among the colony when it’s time to eat. Any waste that’s created in growing and harvesting the fungus is disposed of by yet another crew of ants.
The habits and hierarchies of any type of ant colony are interesting, but there’s no denying that farmer ants are downright captivating. Ready to learn about another insect? See where the migration path of the Monarch butterfly takes you.