Saving the Ant Farmers

This photo comes to us from and shows a leaf cutter ant standing on its pile of leaves and palo verde blossoms.
This photo comes to us from and shows a leaf cutter ant standing on its pile of leaves and palo verde blossoms.

Not long after we moved to Tucson, my next-door neighbor told me about one of the scourges of our desert gardens: Leaf cutter ants! As their name suggests, they specialize in cutting leaves from plants. Sometimes they can defoliate an entire bush or tree. So when I found some of them living in our gravel driveway, and figured out they were targeting a bush I especially liked for its pretty flowers, I struck back. I killed them.

Since then there have been a lot of ant hills in our yard. But I’ve learned more about the ants, and I don’t kill them anymore because…they are farmers!

The ants cultivate fungus gardens deep under the ground, feeding it freshly cut leaves. You can see them walking in long lines to and from a bush, piling leaves at the doorway to their home, and then working together to haul it in bit by bit. Then, just like farmers, they have to protect their gardens, in this case from other fungus and molds that would kill their crops. They are helped in their work by a bacterium that grows on their bodies and that secretes an antimicrobial material helpful to the fungus. Larvae are fed the fungus, and adults live off leaf sap. The fungus needs the ants to stay alive and the larvae need the fungus to stay alive, resulting in what scientists call an “obligatory mutualistic relationship.” In fact, when a Queen heads out to form a new colony, she takes some of the fungus with her to get the new garden started.

The ants don’t like the heat any more than the rest of us, so they hang out in their house all day long and when temperatures cool at night, or after a good monsoon rain, they come out and get to work. That’s why, around here, you sometimes see people out at night with their flashlights looking for the lines of ants and their homes. Then the poison comes out and the ants and people fight.

Here's the Texas Ranger bush in bloom. Now imagine a pile of these dried blossoms outside the ants' home. It was really quite beautiful.
The ants can even figure out how the fungus responds to different plant material so that they can be sure to bring it lots of what helps it grow best. One year the ants were feeding the fungus dropped blossoms from our Texas Ranger bushes. Here’s the Texas Ranger bush in bloom. Now imagine a pile of these dried blossoms outside the ants’ home. It was really quite beautiful.

I’m taking a slightly different tack. We have mesquite limbs that are in the wrong place, so as I trim them, I leave small branches at the ants’ door. I figure they can eat what I don’t want, and maybe then they’ll leave some of the stuff I do like alone. So far so good. But who knows what will happen down the road. I’ll let you know.

In the meantime, thanks for farming and ranching and putting food on our tables! We hope that On Pasture is like the mesquite limbs I’m leaving at the ants’ door – just what you need to keep on being successful.



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One thought on “Saving the Ant Farmers

  1. Yeah…Interesting and informative. But, also true, ants here in Arizona reproduce rapidly and are voracious feeders. Every seed planted in the garden was eaten last year till the weather cooled too much for them to. Everything, even beans and such had to be started in the house and transplanted. They carried aphids into the sorghum stalks and chased off lady bug beetles. Bees trying to pollinate beans were chased off. This summer, three nests of black ants swarmed the gardens, so it was time to stop them. 1 tablespoon of borax, 3 tablespoons of sugar per nest, and most died off. Then red ants appeared and raided the nests. While no fan of red ants, I do like the horn toads that feed on them. Yes, ants do a lot of good, but too many is no less harmful than having bees hive in the house. niio

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