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Thousands of ant species live across the world, but none is as interesting as the leaf ant. Also commonly known as the leafcutter ant, these tiny bugs have incredible skills, including impressive strength and the ability to form massive colonies that would rival major human cities if they were built on a larger scale.
Here is everything you need to know about leaf ants, including a few facts about where these ants can be found and their most interesting behavior.
Where Are Leaf Ants Located?
If you want to learn about leaf ants, the best place to start is where these ants can typically be found. Generally, you will find leaf ants on the floor of the forest living in huge colonies. In fact, some leaf ant colonies are so large that they have thousands of chambers that host as many as ten million ants.
Just like the rooms in your home, the chambers in a leaf ant colony can serve different purposes, with some chambers dedicated to garbage storage and others used for food. As you might expect, it takes a great deal of effort to start a leaf ant colony, and the success rate for new colony formation is extremely low.
Leaf ants are most heavily concentrated in South America and Central America. However, you can also find leaf cutter ants in North America, particularly in the southern United States and Mexico.
Leaf Ant Species
Image via Flickr by Ross Eliot
One of the most interesting facts about leaf cutter ants is that there are actually multiple species of leaf ant. Across the world, there are forty-seven different species of leaf ant, meaning the species that you are seeing will be largely dependent on where you are located. That being said, there are certain characteristics that are shared by all leaf ants.
For starters, leaf insects are much larger than other ant species you’ve likely encountered. In addition, you can identify these ants by their brownish-red color. They will also have spines on their back that distinguish leaf ants from other species.
Different Roles for Different Ants
As mentioned, leaf ant colonies are very large, which means there’s a great deal of work to be done to make sure the colony stays viable. To make sure that all the work gets done, leaf ants are divided into groups, each of which has an important role within the colony.
Most of the work that takes place within the nest is done by minims. In addition to caring for the leaf ant larvae, minims are responsible for the colony’s fungus, which we’ll discuss in a later section. Leaf ant colonies also have guards, which are called minors. These ants protect the physical colony from invaders and will also provide defense for ants that have left the colony to forage. There are also majors, who provide extra defense when the colony is under heavy attack.
When out foraging, leaf ants may need to carry heavy loads back to the colony, and this task is performed by the mediae.
In addition to these major duties, there are some groups of leaf ants that handle smaller jobs. For example, there some leaf ants whose only job is gathering waste and then transporting it to the designated chamber.
Leaf Ants Are Farmers
As you can probably guess from their names, leaf cutter ants will cut leaves from the forest and then carry them back to their nest. However, contrary to what you might think, the ants don’t actually eat these leaves. Instead, they use them for farming.
Leaf ants are some of nature’s most impressive farmers, using the leaves for which they forage to grow fungus that will then feed the community. The leaves collected by leaf cutter ants are placed into special chambers where they are allowed to decompose, which sparks the growth of fungus. So, the leaves collected by these ants serve as a fertilizer for their actual food source.
Leaf Ant Strength
In order to feed their large colonies, leaf ants must grow a large amount of fungus, which means that they’ll need to collect a tremendous volume of leaves. Luckily, leaf ants are some of the strongest insects in the entire world.
Leaf ants use their incredibly powerful jaws to cut and carry leaves. Their jaws are so strong, in fact, that they are able to carry up to fifty times the leaf ant’s weight. In addition to being very strong, leaf cutter ants are very efficient. If you’re fortunate enough to see leaf ants foraging, you can see a supply line that’s nearly 100 feet long. When it comes to efficient foraging, there is almost no more impressive ant than the leaf ant.
Preserving the Forest
Because leaf ants must forage so many leaves to sustain their colonies, you might assume that they are harmful to the forests where they reside. In reality, leaf ants are very beneficial to the ecosystem and can help forests thrive.
By cutting and removing leaves, these ants actually promote the growth of new vegetation. This means that the forests where leaf ants are located can actually be much healthier than other areas.
Leaf Ant Reproduction
Leaf ants only reproduce one time a year, and during this period, new leaf ant colonies can also be formed.
When mating season approaches, both female and male ants with wings will be produced be the colony. These ants will then fly in the air and mate. Once the mating process is complete, the male leaf ant will die, and the female leaf ant will lose her wings. The female ant, now a queen, will set out on her own to start a new colony.
In order to start the new colony, the female ant will carry a small piece of fungus from the old colony. After finding a suitable spot, she will dig a chamber for the fungus and then lay eggs. Once the eggs hatch, the new leaf ants will eat the fungus and get to work growing the colony.
Leaf Ants: The Most Interesting Ant
Leaf ants, as you can now tell, are some of the most interesting ants in the world. However, like every ant species, they’re only interesting from afar, which is why you need to make sure you get help from an ant expert to develop a strategy for keeping these ants out of your home