Ants Are Tiny Farmers—Look Closely & You’ll See

Ants use ages-old farming techniques including growing their own food and harvesting products from other animals. Here's a closer look.

by Karen Lanier
PHOTO: Shutterstock

We humans like to take credit for inventing agricultural systems. Yet ants have been farming beneath our feet for much, much longer. Their highly organized societies revolve around food. We can learn a lot by understanding their food systems and applying some of their practices to our own growing.

Ants Share Food

Nursery tales about ants characterize them as hoarders. That’s true. Some types of ants, such as leafcutters, lay infertile eggs to have an extra food source nearby, just in case. But ants are also sharers. Ants essentially have two stomachs, one for their own food and one that serves as a storage compartment to share with their friends and family back home. In this regard, ants are similar to birds and some mammals that regurgitate food for their young. An additional exchange of information happens as ants connect and pass along information via chemical signals in pheromones. Also, the lay down scent traces as they travel to tell others where to find food. Different colonies have different scents that are detected immediately.

Ants Grow Their Own Food

Leafcutter ants harvest leaves not to feed themselves but to feed a fungus, which the ants in turn eat. A homesteading parallel might be cutting down an oak to inoculate it with shiitake mushroom spores in order to harvest the fruiting mushroom caps later. We can’t eat oak bark, but we can eat what eats oak bark. In the case of ants, however, one crew cuts leaves while another crew chews them and feeds them to the fungus, and a third crew harvests and disperses the fungus throughout the colony. To protect their crops from disease, leafcutter ants depend on actinomycete, a type of bacteria that acts as an antibiotic and reduces parasitic diseases. Actinomycete is carried on ants’ bodies, and recent discoveries reveal that ants developed this relationship with the organic pesticide more than 40 million years ago. Researchers studying a fossilized ant preserved in amber found small pockets in the ant’s head where it carried the same bacteria that modern leafcutter ants carry.

ants seeds

Another type of farming ant gathers seeds, takes them to an underground nest, nibbles the protective outer layer called an elaiosome and then discards the main seed. The discarded seeds thrive in the shelter of ant-waste fertilizer and grow into plants. This makes more seeds, which the ants continue to harvest, eat partially and spread. Some species of ants in Fiji tuck seeds into the cracks of trees and fertilize them. Here in North America, trillium (shown below), a favorite eastern woodland wildflower, relies on ants to pollinate its blossoms and also farm its seeds.

trillium ants
Karen Lanier

Ants Harvest From Other Animals

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, herder ants round up aphids and make the most of the insects’ sweet honeydew, a sticky, sugary secretion that comes out the opposite end of each aphid’s mouth as it chomps down on leaves. To somewhat control—or perhaps gently befriend—the aphid colony, the herder ants make their scented footprints attractive to their tiny livestock. Some types of herder ants immobilize these insects by biting the wings off the aphids so they won’t fly away from the ranch. Whether it’s manipulation or a mutually beneficial relationship is uncertain, but the presence of the ants probably deters predators, such as ladybugs, that could eat the aphids.

ants aphids

Watching ants is not just a boring way to pass the time—and perhaps doing so is exactly where early human farmers got their ideas. Looking at ants as a reflection of modern farming can illuminate what we consider to be humane and natural practices. It can help us consider what our role as food providers really means to our society.

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