Trigger warning for anyone uncomfortable with multi-legged critters: ants ahead. And Jim, I swear this post was not made in retaliation for your enhanced photo. =)
Have you ever reached the point where you faithfully followed someone’s blog until one day they do something so wrong you just can’t ever go back? I am kind of fearful of doing that today.
Because today I am in love with ants even though I know they are on The Most Despised Creatures Ever list.
The leafcutter ants that live at the butterfly garden at Willowbrook Reach are on walkabout. I heard they have been seen foraging as far away as three city blocks!
If you’ve read The Poisonwood Bible you might remember that scene where everyone in the village had to jump into a crocodile infested river to escape a devouring ant horde. Luckily, the group I was watching are vegan pacifists. My attentions were so insignificant I didn’t even rate an annoyed antennae wave. Besides, they were all far too busy to care about a crazy person with a camera.
I wanted to learn more but almost everything the internet had to say focused on how to kill them. Sigh. Actually, most of the things I found were about how difficult it was to kill them.
They don’t look like pests to me. “Of course not,” I imagine some of you saying while rolling your eyes.
As the name suggests, they are indigenous to Texas. They form an intricate society with a wide variety of specialist workers each with a body type that fits them to their job. Some ants are farmers, some work in the nursery, some work for their solid waste services department while others work for the military. Other job titles include: scout, porter and Queen.
Their military has two divisions. The ones with the big heads are grunt labourers and infantry. They clear detritus from the path and ward away any predators approaching by land that might interfere with the line. The other branch of the military focus on air attacks. These soldiers are teeny tiny. They will sometimes hitch a ride on a leaf being carried by a porter. When the colony goes on an expedition for leaves they protect workers from evil flies that try to lay eggs in the heads of porters. I didn’t spot any air wardens even though I looked for them.
They looked so beautiful carrying their bright green parasols I was mesmerized. The ants collect a wide variety of leaf bits, mash them up and use the pulp as a base to grow an edible fungi. Leafcutter ants have been farming fungi for 50 million years. Well, maybe not the ones that live at Willowbrook Reach … though judging from the size of their nest and how it is expanding they might very well continue to live for another 50 million years. Leafcutter ants first appeared in the Eocene when the atmosphere was a lot like the one we are currently working so hard to re-create with greenhouse gas emissions.
In the wild they prefer living in forests and they are absolutely vital for improving soil fertility and friability. If you are one of those people lucky enough to live near a colony please consider not using a pesticide. Collecting their refuse and using it near the plants you want to protect can be an effective deterrent. From the many complaints I’ve read, pesticides don’t really work on these little critters anyway.
If you are interested in learning more — like how they invented agriculture and the use of antibiotics — long before humans were even on the planet try checking out these links: