Look closely into the leafcutter ant mound and you will see many ants of varying sizes working within their fungus garden. Leafcutter ants have evolved a system of farming in which they grow fungus, their sole food source. Each ant has a job which is dictated by its size. There are foragers who venture out of the nest to cut leaves and bring them back. From there, another set of ants of a different size takes over, chewing up the leaves and using it as a substrate for the fungus to grow on. There are smaller ants that act as nursemaids and take care of the brood and keep house. They also help protect their co-workers from phorid flies, who will parasitize the ant when she has her mandibles full. The smaller ant rides on the cut leaf a forager is bringing back to the nest and fights off this fly. You can see it below.
Larger ants, the soldiers, defend the colony and keep everyone safe, although smaller ants will attack invaders as well. There is one queen ant, and she is the largest of them all, about 1 inch in length. Her sole purpose is to lay eggs and produce more workers. She is very well taken care of by her daughters who feed her and groom her regularly.
All the ants in the colony are female; they are all sisters working together, and they can not reproduce. In their natural habitat, once a year, the queen will produce males and virgin queens. These are about the same size as the queen, but they have wings. They then leave the nest to go mate with others from different colonies. The virgin queens take a small piece of fungus with them and after mating, the fertilized females fly off to start their own colonies.
Here in our exhibit in the rainforest, the queen has produced males and virgin queens! We are very excited to see winged ants in our colony as it suggests the colony is productive and healthy. We don’t expect to see more than a few produced but they are quite visible in the fungus chambers as these ants are substantially larger than worker ants. Unfortunately, they will not get to fly away, as they are contained within the mound.