Superorganism Ant Colonies

What’s in a Leafcutter Ant Colony?

Have you ever watched ants moving in and out of a hole, and wondered what kinds of things could be found inside? We have too. To find out what these six legged animals were doing out of eyesight, we built a special home for a colony of ants. Not just any ants, we picked leafcutter ants. Leafcutter ants, as you might guess from their name, collect leaves. They use the leaves that they carry back to their nest to grow a fungus just like a farmer might grow tomatoes, or lettuce. What do they do with the fungus? They eat it. You might be thinking yuck about now, but for leafcutter ants fungus is their food of choice.

Below is a picture of the special ant home we built. If you click on parts of the image, you can learn more about what’s inside and what's going on in the colony.


worker ant

Worker ants: Most of the ants in a colony are female worker ants. These ants are all sisters, and spend their time doing almost all of the jobs that keep the colony going: collecting food, taking care of the garden, taking care of the young, and guarding the nest from intruders.


Queens: Queen ants usually have one main job: they lay all of the eggs that develop into all of the worker ants in the nest. Queens spend most of their time hiding deep inside of the nest, out of harm’s way.


Fungus: Leafcutter ants don’t actually eat the leaves that they harvest. They use the leaves to grow mushrooms, and then they eat the mushrooms. So the ants are actually farmers, like humans!

fungus food

Fungus food: What do the ants feed the fungus? In our colonies, we give the ants leaves from green Palo brea trees. On top of that, we have also learned that the ants like to use cornmeal and oatmeal to grow the fungus.

pupae, larvae

Brood (larvae, pupae): All ants start out as eggs laid by the queen. The eggs hatch into larvae, which spend all of their time in the fungus garden, eating and growing bigger. After they’ve gotten big enough, they turn into pupae and undergo metamorphosis, like butterflies, and then emerge as adult ants.


Trash: Just like humans, ants produce trash as their colonies grow. The ants are very good at keeping their nest tidy by throwing out their trash into a trash pile.


Where are the male ants?
Male ants actually don’t do very much in the colony: they are raised by their sisters, and when they become adults they wait until the conditions are just right and then they leave the nest to mate with queens. When colonies aren’t getting ready to reproduce, there won’t be any male ants around at all! Here you see a male and a queen mating. 


Foraging arenas: The major goal of ant foragers is to find food. In the lab, they can find it in these arenas that we set up. After the foragers find vegetation, they start chewing leaves off to carry back to the fungus gardens.

Images by Rebecca Clark.

fungus brood fungus queens fungus food trash foraging workers workers

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Bibliographic details:

  • Article: Leafcutter Ant Colony
  • Author(s): Tate Holbrook, Rebecca Clark, and Brian Haney
  • Publisher: Arizona State University School of Life Sciences Ask A Biologist
  • Site name: ASU - Ask A Biologist
  • Date published: December 21, 2009
  • Date accessed: April 13, 2024
  • Link:

APA Style

Tate Holbrook, Rebecca Clark, and Brian Haney. (2009, December 21). Leafcutter Ant Colony. ASU - Ask A Biologist. Retrieved April 13, 2024 from

American Psychological Association. For more info, see

Chicago Manual of Style

Tate Holbrook, Rebecca Clark, and Brian Haney. "Leafcutter Ant Colony". ASU - Ask A Biologist. 21 December, 2009.

MLA 2017 Style

Tate Holbrook, Rebecca Clark, and Brian Haney. "Leafcutter Ant Colony". ASU - Ask A Biologist. 21 Dec 2009. ASU - Ask A Biologist, Web. 13 Apr 2024.

Modern Language Association, 7th Ed. For more info, see
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