Atta texana: Leafcutter Ants

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. =)

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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.

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porters and cutters

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.

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They don’t look like pests to me. “Of course not,” I imagine some of you saying while rolling your eyes.

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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.

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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.

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soldier (the one with the big head)  protecting the solid waste department

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:

Mutualism of Ant and Fungi

Leafcutter Ants — The First Agriculture

The Currie Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

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The Mighty Hercules, one of the more ambitious porter ants
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34 thoughts on “Atta texana: Leafcutter Ants

  1. What an interesting post! I never knew the ants had different body shapes based on their job. Nature is too cool! I don’t care for ants in my house but they only come when they are thirsty so I am fairly understanding. These Leafcutters are truly amazing. Now if they were 8 feet tall I might worry but otherwise they are fascinating.

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  2. My husband and I traveled to Belize for our honeymoon, and what stuck out to me the most was all the ant highways from the leaf cutters. I never saw any ants, but there were clear pathways a few inches wide all over the jungle. Our guide explained that once the ants establish their nest, they send out scouts to find a food source. Then, the worker ants clear a path from the nest to the food, moving all twigs and leaf in the way. Once the food source is gone, they abandon their trail and start again. I thought it was so cool!
    I didn’t know leaf cutter ants were found in the US. I have no issues with ants outside, but I don’t agree with them trying to move into my house. Sadly, that means war in my family.

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    1. Ants in the kitchen would be a nightmare. Like you I was surprised to learn they live in the US. I assumed they were purely tropical. Belize must have been amazing!

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  3. Ants are no problem in your blog. I think they are very interesting. They have a marvelous social order and get things done. My wife can’t stand to watch them on TV. My only issue with ants is when they think moving indoors is a good thing to do. Nope…you can’t live in here. Sorry.

    PS: I don’t see any wearing PJs. :-)

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    1. Glad to hear I didn’t hit the squick button. Whew. See TexasDeb’s comment below for a link to that will take you to a place where the ants do wear PJs though they are a more subdued grey.

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  4. I saw The Naked Jungle as a very young child and spent many sleepless nights afterwards, trying to figure out where in my bedroom I could successfully hide should a similar invasion happen in Central Texas. I quickly realized there was not any such place. Nowhere to hide. I decided I would have to become such a friend to ants they would never want to harm me. And that’s pretty much been my attitude since. Unfortunately certain fire ant colonies in my garden beds have not gotten the friend memo, but negotiations continue.

    (All ant geeks raise your hand if you read/loved Empire of the Ants by Bernard Werber!)…

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    1. There is no place to hide o.O
      I will have to check out Empire of the Ants by Werber. I just read the description and it sounds thrilling. H.G. Wells also wrote a story called “Empire of the Ants.” I found the full text version at http://www.online-literature.com/wellshg/2881/

      What an amazing document. The story stands on its own but the subtext of empire and ‘bug splat’ makes this feel so topical!

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  5. Lovely photos. You have to admire them. So organised and hardworking.
    You have actually got me watching bugs, Debra. I have even bought a bug book, so that I can identify them. I can’ t wait to get a macro lens.

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    1. That is just too funny! I was not exactly a bug admirer when I was a kid. It just goes to show how much a person can change. I am VERY excited about seeing and hearing more about the insect world on your side of the planet.

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  6. The thing I like most about leafcutter ants is their name. That’s not to take away anything from any other attributes they may have. It’s just that I love it when an insect, plant, or whatever has a name that distills their nature or looks down to one or two perfect words.

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    1. I agree! And it sure makes identification easier. In this case I looked up ‘ants that carry leaves’ and found to my astonishment it was a thing. haha

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  7. The first birthday presents that I remember were hordes of green army soldiers and shiny silver cowboy cap pistols. Needless to say, this led to me being pretty militant minded in my- only child upbringing. When I was about eight, I saw the film “The Naked Jungle” with Charlton Heston and Eleanor Parker. It was an adventure tale involving an attack of army ants on a Brazilian cocoa plantation, it was based on the short story “Leiningen Versus the Ants” by Carl Stephenson. I loved that film and saw it whenever it came on TV. My militant little mind absolutely loved the ants, their food foraging caravans and most of all, their incredible war machine. Since childhood I have begrudgingly learned to appreciate peace, beauty, art and all that stuff. But my internal Calvin still glows warm (and a wee bit diabolical) in appreciation of a good ant blog entry. Thank you.

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    1. Thanks, This is interesting that the military aspect resonated with you. Could it be because you are a person who knows about injustice and that you fight to protect others? I am starting to think that ants are not only a keystone species but one that acts like a touchstone, too. They are so much like us. Does each person see something different reflecting back? When I showed my husband he was interested in information flow and exchange. How do they communicate and learn their roles? What could we learn from ants that would help our work building artificial intelligence? That kind of thing.

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      1. Thanks for your reply Debra. Love your blog, if I haven’t mentioned that to you recently. You take us on such wonderful trips.

        Your description of the ants remind me of all of the mammal species in the South African bush. They are effective, efficient and their prime directive is to act in accordance with what is expected of you for the betterment of the colony/pack/pride/herd, etc. As there is no room for inefficiency/error if one is to survive in at the wild, both ants and the aforementioned mammals are marvels of evolution and perfectly in sync with their environment.

        As a child (5 to 10) I had the little green soldiers and my imagination. I would split my forces and create sagas and wars. I learned from studying ants (and that movie I mentioned) and incorporated their tactics into my wars of imagination.

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        1. Thanks for the encouragement! I share this stuff online to keep from completely boring my family. Which means I do sometimes worry about the danger of boring the entire world. haha. I just saw an amazing video about the ripple effects of keystone mammals. It is so beautiful to see just how everything really is connected with everything else. My husband has fond memories of those green soldiers, too. I think they sparked many minds.

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  8. I love leafcutter ants!! Adore them. My dad has a crew that’s been traipsing across his driveway (from the garden, but going…we have no idea where to) for quite a long time. Everytime I’m in Corpus Christi, I spend time watching them. My brother, who’s the main caregiver/supervisor of the other caregivers of my dad’s (my dad is 91, at home, but yeah, we have folks there, 24/7), put Dad’s garbage/recycling cans in front of the trail so that cars won’t drive over them.

    Such fabulous photos–I really need to learn how to do that….

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    1. Thanks, Tina. I wasn’t all that happy with these shots so I am happy someone liked them. I was trying to do something my camera (or I) just can’t quite do. I wanted to capture the swarm feel but also how each one is an individual. I really am smitten. I saw how they are beginning to take over the Butterfly Garden though and worried that someone was going to jump to considering a ‘Final Solution.’ Someone on our listserve joked that maybe one day we will have to rename that area ‘The Ant Garden.’ I think I would be ok with that.

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  9. This is not very adult I appreciate, but after watching the film ‘Antz’ with my children some years ago, I can only look at various Ant species now and wonder about their families and social groups. Some lovely photos and great links Debra.

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    1. It doesn’t seem silly or childish to me to take meaning from stuff that happens in nature. =) If you see family and a well functioning social group I think that speaks volumes about who you are.

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