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Ants Have Swagger When it Comes to Agriculture

by Devin Reese -- Nov 24, 2015
Devin Reese, smiling

Devin is the lead digital science writer for the Q?rius website. She writes and gathers media for the Smithsonian Science How? webcast series,...

Leaf-cutter ant colony tending its fungus garden, presided over by the queen. Smithsonian photo by Karolyn Darrow.
Leaf-cutter ant colony tending its fungus garden, presided over by the queen. Smithsonian photo by Karolyn Darrow.

Ants have been farming for upwards of 55 million years. Humans started farming about 12,000 years ago. So, ants got a huge head start when it comes to growing food. They were developing their agricultural techniques for about 49,988,000 years while we were nonexistent and then roaming around scrabbling for food.

It is no wonder, then, that we find sophisticated agriculture systems in some ant species. At the pinnacle of farming abilities are the famous leaf-cutter ants who cultivate fungus gardens as a unique food for their colony. Like us, they prepare “soil” (leaf cuttings), plant, weed, fertilize, and protect their gardens from pests. Each ant has its own job, with tiny ants tending the gardens and feeding the larvae, while larger ants bring leaf cuttings and defend the nest from intruders.

While their agriculture may seem tiny in scale compared to ours, a single leaf-cutter ant nest may process as much vegetation as an adult cow. They are major ecosystem engineers, cropping leaves and recycling nutrients into the soil. And, to ants, sustainable agriculture comes naturally. Waste from the garden is carried to a compost pile by designated ant workers and regularly mixed by other ants to speed decomposition.

What characteristics have allowed ants to become successful farmers? Find out more in a "Smithsonian Science How" webcast video on The Evolution of Agriculture in Ants on the Q?rius website. Entomologist Dr. Ted Schultz from the National Museum of Natural History discusses and answers questions. Get teaching resources to support your webcast experience.

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