WATCH | The six-legged farmers giving a masterclass on sustainability

Leafcutter ants.
Leafcutter ants.
Image: Crees Foundation.

It’s easy to think that humans are the ultimate agriculturalists. We’ve been farming for centuries, creating civilisations fuelled by the efficiency of crop cultivation.

However, we weren’t the founders of this revolution. One of the smallest insects has been doing this work for millions of years.

Leafcutter ants may be second to humans when it comes to building societies, but their process is far more sustainable than our own. 

Found mainly in South American tropical forests, these tiny creatures have formed an intricate system to nutrify their community.

First, the workers embark on a journey to find a verdant tree. Once they choose their victim, they use their large jaws to cut off sections of its leaves. But their work doesn’t harm the plant – it stimulates vegetation growth instead.

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Since the ant is able to carry more than its own weight in leaves, these pickings aren’t small.

Forming a line which can extend up to 30 metres, the foliage soldiers march triumphantly back to their nest.

The offcuts are used to grow a fungus entombed within the hive, which the farmers fertilise with nitrogen-fixing bacteria.


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The result of their labour is a lawn of fungus for the ants to consume. This in turn enhances the soil quality, giving way to the sprouting of stronger plants.

By establishing a symbiotic relationship with their food supply, these tiny workers are able to continue successfully harvesting leaves and nourishing their clan.

The agricultural method of leafcutter ants is a masterclass on eco-friendly farming. Nature is constantly offering us lessons – we just need to take the time to learn.

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