Ant Farmers at Work

Ant Farmers at Work
Leafcutter Ants at Work Taking Leaf Cuttings to the Colony

We commonly think of animals as opportunists. They find their food and eat it or store it for future eating. One of the characteristics of humans that distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom is that we prepare an environment that produces our food. Farmers plant seeds and tend the crops by fertilizing, protecting from threats, and watering when necessary. They also make arrangements for future crops. Entomologists are finding more and more cases where insects do these same things. For example, ant farmers work together to produce their food.

In Fiji, a plant called Squamellaria grows in a cluster with jelly-bean shaped bubbles inside. The opening into the clusters is just the right size for the Philidris nagasau ant to get into the bubbles. As the bubbles send out shoots, the ants defecate inside the cluster, fertilizing the plant. When the plant blooms, the ants eat the nectar it produces. The ants then plant the seeds where new clusters can grow.

Another family of ant farmers is the Atta genus. In their farms, they grow a fungus species that they nourish with leaf cuttings. After cutting off leaf sections, worker ants carry them back to the colony. As the workers transport the leaf cuttings, others ride on the leaves to protect against a parasitic fly species. You might call that pesticide.

At the colony, other ants pulverize and defecate on the leaves to make them ready to nourish the fungi. The ants can’t eat the leaves, but the fungi are their food, and only one fungus species is edible. If another fungus species develops, the ants produce a toxin, which destroys only the invading fungus. This is herbicide use at its best. The Atta ants inspect the fungus several times a day, tending it carefully. The system is so efficient that one Atta nest can grow enough fungus food to feed seven-million resident ants. In the process, the ant colony produces fertile soil that promotes plant growth.

If you saw the 1994 Disney animated Lion King movie, you saw Atta ant farmers at work. Remember that fungi are not photosynthetic. No sunlight is needed for Atta ants to grow their food. They simply carry in the nutrients for the fungi to grow, and then they eat the fungi. We do the same thing with much of our meat, providing plant material for chickens or pigs to eat, and then eating the animals that we fed. In the case of the ants, they eat only one food, which simplifies farming enormously.

We know it takes incredible planning and design to manage a farm. No chance process produces most of the foods we eat. It requires meticulous planning and careful application of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. As scientists study insect farming, they see a design that is carefully and intricately produced.

Data on the ant farmers came from Science News, April 25, 2020, pages 16-20. The subtitle of the article is, “Could our agricultural role models have six legs?” This reminds us of the challenge in Proverbs 6:6-8: Go to the ant … consider her ways, and be wise. She has no guide, overseer or ruler but provides her food in the summer and gathers her food in harvest.” The title of the article is “The First Farmers.” We might amend that to be “God’s First Farmers.”

— John N. Clayton © 2020

Click HERE to learn about a special tool leafcutter ants use.