Leaf-cutter ant colony tending its fungus garden, presided over by the queen. (Karolyn Darrow/Thinkstock)
When it comes to agriculture, ants show swagger
December 03, 2015
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. They cultivate fungus gardens as a unique food for their colony. Like us, they prepare "soil" (leaf cuttings), plant, weed and fertilize. And they protect their gardens from pests. Each ant has its own job. Tiny ants tend the gardens and feed the larvae. 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. They crop leaves and recycle 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. The pile is regularly mixed by other ants to speed decomposition.
What characteristics have allowed ants to become successful farmers? Find out more on Thursday, December 10, 2015, in a Smithsonian Science How live webcast on The Evolution of Agriculture in Ants. (It airs at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. EST on the Q?rius website). Entomologist Dr. Ted Schultz from the National Museum of Natural History will appear live. He will discuss and answer questions. Get teaching resources to support your webcast experience.
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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why have ants been farming longer than humans?
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