Some ants, like farmers, raise crops

May 17, 2017 GMT

You won’t see an ant riding a tractor or pulling a plow, but there are some of the insects that are farmers. Instead of growing wheat or corn, though, these ants take care of different types of fungi, growing them in their underground homes like miniature greenhouses.

Fungi are like plants but different. They absorb their food, instead of making it from sunshine like green plants. Mushrooms are a fungi. I’m a fun guy.

About 250 species of fungus-farming ants have been found in tropical forests, deserts and grasslands in the Americas and the Caribbean, according to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

Just like farmers, the ants fertilize their crops, carry in water if the fungi gets too dry, haul away waste and keep growing conditions just right. In return for being pampered, the fungi are a food source for the ants.

“Agriculture is very rare in the animal world,” Ted Schultz, curator of ants at the museum, told “Science Daily.” “We only know of four animal groups that have discovered agriculture: ants, termites, bark beetles and humans.”

Some fungi have become so dependent on their ant farmers that they can’t grow any other way. Others act more like weeds, sometimes escaping their ant colonies to grow wild. Then the ants may have to go gather new fungi and start fungi farming over again.

The daughter of the queen of some types of aunts will also leave to start a new colony when it gets too big. To do that she will take a bit of fungi with her, like a farmer might takes seeds to start a new garden.

Scientists think ants started farming fungi about 30 million years ago, a time when the planet was cooling, and dry areas were becoming more common. That’s a long time to be a farmer, much longer than humans who only started farming about 23,000 years ago.

— Brett French,

Gazette Outdoors editor