Evidently there are people who read this column (thank you very much) because I occasionally get notes and nods from them [notes via email and nods in person], and everyone pretty much agrees on one thing: They don’t like leaf cutter ants.
Okay, I agree. I don’t like leaf cutter ants either. Sadly, though, I have something to say in their defense. No, really! There are
some good things about these (expletive deleted) pests.
Leaf cutters make huge tunnels for specific purposes, but it is the tunnels themselves that aid the soil, aerating it and allowing heavy soils to drain more easily. Ant specialists of some species remove debris and dead ants to a trash heap outside the nest where they decompose and enrich the soil.
Then there is that above-ground nest, built grain by grain by worker ants which laboriously dig the tunnels and spread those grains of dirt around the nest opening. That dirt may come from 20 feet (6 meters) below the surface and can be rich in just the minerals your garden needs. Not only that, but it is light fluffy dirt, easy to shovel into a wheelbarrow or cart and haul away. The ants don’t seem to mind, although I have had a couple that objected to being moved (they showed their objection by biting through my glove). Don’t try this with fire ant mounds though. They have serious objections to moving and their mounds are too shallow for those extra minerals.
Then there is the science. First, remember that the ants don’t eat the leaves they cut. They dine on a fungus that grows on the leaves. As it turns out, these farmer ants have bacteria on their bodies that make antibiotics that keep the fungus gardens healthy. It’s a strange relationship between ants, bacteria, and fungus, but studying the antibiotics that keep ant gardens healthy might someday help keep people healthy. Scientists are also studying the breakdown of leaves in ant gardens to see if it will help us develop better biofuels. All from those pesky ants.
Not convinced? Neither am I. Right now, I am looking out the window at an angel trumpet that has been completely stripped of leaves by leaf cutters. I know it will come back because this has happened before, but it is disheartening. If scientists are so interested in the ants, maybe they can do gardeners a favor and find a way to get them to eat weeds – just weeds.