Mary, Mary how does your fungus grow?

Think humans are the only farmers? Think again. Ants were gardening while we were still swinging from the trees. Only instead of corn, ants cultivate fungi. And unlike many humans’ gardens, the ants’ gardens are completely organic.

I want more candy!
You’re lying, right?
My brain hurts!

Ants garden? What?
Some ants, attine ants, grow fungus gardens. Ants bring back leaves and other organic bits to feed the fungi. They, in turn, eat the fungi. Every time a new queen leaves the hive she takes a piece of fungus to start her own garden.

So, the ants in my backyard have a garden?
No, unless you live in South America. The ants in the average North American’s backyard are most likely from the family Formicinae. They are foragers that eat whatever they find. Ants that grow fungi are known as attine ants and they live in Central and South America.

How are their gardens organic?
The fungus the ants grow has pests, the same as humans’ crops do. The ants, however, don’t use pesticide to control their crops. Instead a bacteria that grows in pits on the ants’ bodies produces a chemical that keeps the pests in check. Unlike humans who must continually come up with new pesticides, the ants never have to get a new ‘pesticide’ since the bacteria evolves as the pests evolve to always keep the pests in check.

If humans could be like ants, by controlling pests with bacteria or other natural means, we could eliminate the need for pesticides and their harmful effects on the environment.

Attine Ants and Fungal Gardens a New York Times article via UCBerkeley
Wikipedia entry about ants more than you ever wanted to know
Original Science Article link to the abstract

Photo provided by ETicas

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