Leafcutter Ants

Leafcutter Ants

The World’s Smallest Gardeners

Leafcutter ants are insects that are less than 1 cm long. They spend much of their time cutting leaves to make compost for gardens in which they grow the fungi that they eat. There are about 40 species of leafcutter ants. All of them grow their own food! Leafcutter ants live in Central and South America.

Workers inside the colony clean and move a pupa, which will develop into a larger leafcutter worker.Workers inside the colony clean and move a pupa, which will develop into a larger leafcutter worker.

©C.Ziegler/GLOBIO.org

Life in a Leafcutter Colony

Leafcutter ants live in a colony. Like all colonies of ants, the leafcutter ant community is divided into three groups: a queen, several drones, and possibly millions of workers. There are as many as seven different kinds of workers. Each type of worker has a different-sized head and mandible. Workers are also divided into castes. Leafcutter ants have more castes than any other species of ant. There are 22 different community jobs the colony caste members must perform.

The Queen: An Egg-Laying Machine

The leafcutter ant queen loses her wings after mating and begins to dig her underground nest so she can start a new colony.The leafcutter ant queen loses her wings after mating and begins to dig her underground nest so she can start a new colony.

©C.Ziegler/GLOBIO.org

The queen’s main job is to lay eggs. Most of the eggs she lays become worker ants. All workers are females. The queen may also lay a few eggs that become drones, all of whom are male. Occasionally, she lays a few eggs that hatch into a female that can become another queen.

As a new queen develops, she grows wings. When she is fully grown, she flies away from the colony where she was born. She searches for an ideal location to begin a new colony. When she lands, she sheds her wings and starts digging a nest. Once secure in the small underground nest, the queen begins laying eggs – the only job she will have for the rest of her life.

Starting a New Colony: Lots of Work to Do

As soon as the first few dozen worker ants have hatched in a new colony, they get to work. These ants are called minims because they are extra small. Their job is to care for new eggs and start making the first fungus garden.

Smaller ants and other insects can sometimes be seen hitching a ride on a leafcutter ant's leaf clipping.Smaller ants and other insects can sometimes be seen hitching a ride on a leafcutter ant’s leaf clipping.

©C.Ziegler/GLOBIO.org

And Lots of Workers to Do the Work

After two to three weeks, larger worker ants called minors hatch. The largest leafcutter ants are called majors. The majors have heads seven times larger than the heads of minims. After majors begin to hatch, no more minims are born. Soon thousands of ants create a giant underground colony made up of hundreds of tunnels and tiny rooms. Each colony may contain several hundred thousand to as many as 8 million ants!

Hunting for Leaves

Leafcutter ant workers carry leaf clippings back to their colony for their fungus gardens.Leafcutter ant workers carry leaf clippings back to their colony for their fungus gardens.

©G.Ellis/GLOBIO.org

Growing fungus is one of the most important activities in the colony. The first step is to get some leaves. Older workers leave the colony to explore their environment and hunt for trees with the right kinds of leaves. Leafcutters use many different kinds of leaves. But they seem to prefer those from orange and lemon trees.

Cutting the Leaves

Leafcutter ants travel across the forest floor carrying leaf clippings. They follow a chemical trail left by other members of their colony. The trail leads them back to their colony.Leafcutter ants travel across the forest floor carrying leaf clippings. They follow a chemical trail left by other members of their colony. The trail leads them back to their colony.

©G.Ellis/GLOBIO.org

When the leaves are found, the major workers “harvest” the leaves by cutting out pieces of leaves with their scissor-like mandibles. They return to the colony carrying the cut leaves. They lay down a chemical scent trail so that they and other ants from the colony can find their way back.

Growing the Fungus

A few ants follow the trail back to the source of the leaves. Eventually thousands of ants join in. They climb the marked tree and harvest many pieces of leaves and carry them back to the nest. The leaf bits begin to rot and create compost. The compost provides nutrients that the fungus needs to grow.