There are surprisingly over a 1,000 known species of ants currently residing within the United States. The term “leaf cutter ants” accounts for about 39 of these ant species, of whom have become troublesome pests in landscapes of homeowners and commercial businesses alike. So let’s first take a closer look at these well-equipped tiny soldiers and get to know the in’s and out’s of the leaf cutter ant.
Leaf cutter ants have three body parts – the head, thorax and abdomen, with jointed legs, antennae and an exoskeleton, similar to the hardness of an adult human’s fingernails. These ants belong to the two genera Atta and Acromyrmex, with exterior colors ranging from orange, brown, red or black (typically depending on geographical area).
Their sharp mandibles (or jaws) allow the ants to cut pieces of leaves from plants and trees. Leaf cutter ants have long legs, with the worker ants in this group ranging from .1 to .5 inches long. The queen is always larger than the worker ants and can grow as big as one inch long.
Ant Colony Roles
- Minim Ants – are gardener-nurse ants; they tend to the fungus farm and feeding ant larvae.
- Minor Ants – guard the colony’s nest and trails.
- Mediae Ants – are foragers of food that can carry heavy loads to the nest.
- Major Ants – are larger soldier ants that defend the nest from predators and rival colonies.
Over the years, leaf cutter ants have gained the nickname of “fungus farmers” from the scientist who have closely studied them. This is due to the fact that the ants do not actually eat the leaves they gather into their nest; they ‘farm’ with them and grow mushroom-type fungus to feed on. If you have leaf cutter ants in your yard and were to discover part of the fungus farm above ground, upon closer examination, you would be able to see the pieces of chewed up leaves in the mass that are being tended by the gardener ants in the colony. This farming provides complete sustenance for these ants, that is why typical baits and poisons are completely ineffective on these ants, as they only eat the food they grow.
Leaf Cutter Ant Temperament
Typically leaf cutter ants are non-aggressive when left alone to continue their work. However, they can pierce human flesh and draw blood, due to their large size and powerful jaws.
Leaf Cutter Ant Control
To begin with, make sure you have properly identified your landscape pest as leaf cutter ants using the physical descriptors above and by looking at the type of damage that can be found on your plants. Large cut out patterns from leaves should be easily seen, and if you see a trail of ants carrying leaves away, then there is no mistake in what type they are.
These ants typically reside in the southern United States (though countries further south have huge issues with this pest too) and have been known to damage fruit trees (citrus, plum, peach, etc.), nut trees/plants, ornamental plants, pine tree seedlings and some forage crops. Leaf cutter ants generally target one plant at a time, allowing you time to trace the ant’s path back to the nest entrance.
Methods of leaf cutter ant control may include: use of a sprayed insecticide (for chewing insects) in and around the nest area and ant trails; sprinkling of a powder agent such as Sevin Dust on the target plant, ant trail and nest; other methods include spreading the ant waste (looks like a typical, granular ant hill near nest) around your targeted plants or wrapping the base of your trees in plastic wrap (questionable method).
It is NEVER recommended to gas and burn ant nests; this is not safe in any situation.
Call Leaf Cutting Ant Experts
If you are a homeowner or business owner experiencing issues with leaf cutter ants in your landscape, do not hesitate to call your local pest control expert to learn more control methods for these unusual pests. Time is of the essence with these swift-moving insects, so be sure to contact an expert immediately to prevent sizable damage from occurring to your plants and trees.