The Ants Go Marching…and Cutting, and Farming

Meandering along the trail in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary & Jaguar Preserve in Belize, I found myself wishing I had an extra pair of eyeballs – one set to watch where I’m going (I’m a terrible klutz), and another pair to take in the scenery. The dense, broadleaf forest offered a feast for the senses.  I had come here because I wanted to truly experience the Central American jungle, hoped to see a wildcat, and to indulge my budding interest in birds. Surprisingly, the animals that were to impress me the most were significantly smaller than jaguars or birds.

Ahead of me, a parade of leaves marched out of the forest, across the trail and into the forest on the other side.  Odd.  Leaves can’t walk.  Or can they? I stooped down to take a closer look and encountered one of nature’s marvels – leaf cutter ants.

Leaf cutter ants at work. Photo by Micah MacAllen.

Organized, industrious, and exemplar of female power (ants are girls!), all ants are amazing.  But Leaf Cutters take it to a whole new level.  Looking at them trucking along, carrying loads several times their body-size, they struck me as tiny lumberjacks.  However, the little lumberjacks advancing along the trail represented only a segment of Leaf Cutter society.  As I was later to learn, Leaf Cutters are farmers.

The leaves being carried back to the nest by the marching army of muscle-women were not to be eaten. At least not by the ants.  Instead the leaves are used to feed a fungus that serves as the ants food.  Leaf cutter ants will go miles out of their way to avoid coming into contact with plants that have natural anti-fungal properties and could therefore pose a risk to the nest.

They say that a leaf cutter society can contain up to eight million individual ants.  That’s like an ant version of New York City.  Watching a line of them carry their loads across a grassy meadow, it was not hard to imagine that they were so numerous.  Their feet had worn a 5 cm-wide trail in the grass.  How many bazillion ant feet does it take to carve a trail through tall (tall- from the ants’ perspective) grass? Scientists have found leaf cutter nests that extend to over 30 metes in diameter – true mega-cities.

Leaf cutter ant. Photo by Jarrod Scott.

Although, my stay at the Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Preserve did not include a jaguar sighting (though I did see tracks, and some other visitors saw a pair of pumas), I was not disappointed.  There were a few other independent travelers and a group of college students from an environmental studies class.  The experts and ornithologists that accompanied the college students made their knowledge available to everyone and while I was cooking my evening meals I listened to students present papers topics like “co-evolution”.  I saw remarkable birds.  And of course, there were those unforgettable little ants.

Check out this radio interview to learn more about these amazing  six-legged little creatures.

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Jennifer Choban

Editor & Author at Gear Up & Play
Seasoned traveler, avid reader, over-eater, clumsy but determined hiker, nascent piano player and wannabe Spanish-speaker.
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5 thoughts on “The Ants Go Marching…and Cutting, and Farming

  1. Judy

    Yes! Those little girls are amazing! I found an underground leafcutter farm in Honduras that was about 3 feet deep and 3 feet wide. The ladies never stopped marching for miles to do their mushroom farming. And they don’t stop and bite you! It’s true we look for the “big” and “famous” creatures. Glad you looked at these overlooked critters. They are a huge part of the ecosystem. It starts from the bottom up, yes?

  2. Avatar of Gear Up and PlayGear Up and Play

    I love Ants, even as a child I remember studying ants in the yard and seeing the red ants, the black ants and the little brown ants. It’s crazy the ants know what leafs are bad for cultivating the fungus they need. We can learn so much from Nature.

  3. Leafcutter Ants

    Step1: Find the place leaf cutter ant action is existing if colonies are not apparent. For the duration of the summer season, the ants are most active at night among eleven:00 p.m. and midnight. The initial evening immediately after a plant is targeted, you will discover several leaves all-around the base of the plant that appear like they simply fell off the plant. Some of the leaves will have half-moon shaped cuts out of their side. The second evening the ants will cut up the leaves and carry them into their den. That is when you will have to have to get your flashlight and observe the trail of ants to their den, and find the openings or “vents” where they are entering the ground.

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