Our ant colonies have been with us for two years now and never cease to amaze our visitors. The largest of our two colonies is a species known scientifically as Atta cephalotes, they are a leaf cutting ant native to Central and South America.
There are many different species of leaf cutting ant, but Atta are one of the largest in terns of how many individuals can be produced by a single queen. Atta cephalotes can have as many as 5 million ants living in just one colony!
Mexican Leaf Cutting Ant
Our other Leaf Cutting Ants (Acromyrmex octospinosus) operate in a very similar fashion to our Atta colony in that they all work together performing lots of different tasks. Including the cultivation of fungus by collecting and rotting leaves.
The main differences between Atta and Acromyrmex is that unlike the Atta colony which can have several million ants working for it, Acromyrmex are a much smaller colony usually maxing out at around 40,000 workers. Acromyrmex are also a multi queen colony meaning they can have several queens producing fertile eggs at a time unlike the Atta which only ever have one active
Here at the Stratford-upon-Avon Butterfly Farm, we have developed a rather unusual way to display our Mexican leafcutting ants!
The main colony lives in an enormous glass terrarium which allows you to closely view all the different jobs being carried out by the busy worker ants. To find their food, the ants must climb up and out of their enclosure using a long walkway made from rope, which is suspended from the ceiling and above our visitors’ heads! They must use the walkway to cross the room (while fascinated visitors watch from below) where they will find another glass terrarium full of leaves. Their next job is simple, cut the leaves and return to base!
Upon returning to their main enclosure, the ants do not eat the leaves. Instead the leaves are taken underground to specialist workers who chew the leaves, spit them out and defecate on them to promote fungus growth. It is the fungus that the ants can then eat. So, in a sense they are an army of miniature farmers!
The ant colony is a huge family who all need to work together as a team if they hope to collect enough food to survive. So, like any family or team everyone must be assigned different jobs to make sure the team is working together efficiently. There are many different jobs within the ant colony but some of the most important jobs are as follows;
The Queen Ant
The queen ant is around the size of a baby mouse. Her job is simple, lay lots of eggs! She is capable of laying hundreds of eggs every day! She is also the only individual in the entire colony that can lay fertile eggs, so without her the colony would eventually cease to exist.
As the queen can lay several hundred eggs a day when she is fully productive, that doesn’t leave her much time to do anything else. So, the nursery workers are responsible for transporting the eggs to the correct chambers and feeding the larvae once they hatch.
Worker ants can be split into two further categories; The larger individuals become foragers and smaller individuals become gardeners. Foragers find and cut leaves, which they return to the nest for the foragers to sort and develop into fungus.
A soldier ant’s role is to defend the colony from predators. They are much larger than the other ants (though not as large as the queen) and have enormous mandibles which can deliver quite a nasty pinch. – Cool Maya Fact – The Maya people used soldier ants as stitches to bind together open wounds.
Some ants are tasked with removing waste and excavating new tunnels ready for gardener ants to fill with leaves and fungus.
The ant colony is made up entirely of females! Males are only produced for reproductive purposes and usually only live for a few days. The colony is therefore made up entirely of the queen and her milli
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