Leaf-cutter ants (Atta cephalotes)

Leaf-cutter Ants

Our ant colony is located in the science gallery within our Tropical House: Energy for Life.

Fast facts

Status Not Evaluated

Size Queen length: 22mm; Worker length: 2-14mm

Young The queen can lay almost 30,000 eggs per day

Life span Queens may live for more than 10 years

What do I eat?

Leaf-cutter ants cut pieces of leaf, but they don’t actually eat leaves. Instead, they take them back to their nest and use them to grow fungus which they use as their food.

Where do I live?

Leaf-cutter ants are found across a wide area in Central and South America, from Mexico to Argentina. They build their nests in a variety of natural and manmade habitats, such as farms, plantations, rainforests and forest patches. These ants construct vast nests in which to grow their fungus, with thousands of chambers connected by a network of tunnels.

Breeding

In each colony of leaf-cutter ants there is only one queen, who is the only ant in the nest able to reproduce. She may produce 150 to 200 million offspring in her lifetime.  There may be millions of workers of different shapes and sizes who are all female and all infertile. Every year colonies will produce a number of male and female ants who are able to reproduce.  These ants fly off to mate, and the females then lose their wings and dig a nest chamber in an attempt to start their own colonies. If they succeed, the queen spends the rest of her life laying eggs and being tended by workers.

Predators

Most ants in leaf-cutter ant colonies will help to defend the colony against attack, but there is a special soldier class of large ‘major’ workers with powerful, sharp mouth parts who will attack large intruders, including vertebrates.

Conservation

There are no conservation measures in place to protect leaf-cutter ants, because they are found in large numbers across their range and they are often considered a pest because they cut leaves from crops. However, these ants play an important role in maintaining the balance of their habitats because they cut back leaves, encourage new plant growth, and add nutrients to the soil by breaking down plant materials.  

Did you know?

There are many different types of worker ant. Minor and media ants work in the fungus garden processing material and looking after the fungus.

The smallest workers, known as minims, often hitchhike on leaves being carried by the larger workers. These minims protect the larger worker from parasitic flies which try to lay eggs in the ants.

Leaf-cutter ants mark their foraging trails with chemicals from their poison gland sacs. This allows the ants to find their way.

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