Ant farms: February 2012 Archives

Hi, I have an Atta sexdens Queen and I wanted to know how can I control her fungus to not overrun the space so early? I heard that this type of leafcutter-ant grows very very fast, and if there is anyway to retard this fast process..

Giving small quantities of plants would solve this problem? Or there is another way to do it? And here I sent some pictures of my colony :)

Thank You
Best Regards,
Felipe

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Dear Felipe,

To answer your question, we contacted Randy Morgan, who is an expert on keeping live ant colonies and Curator of Invertebrates, Reptiles and Amphibians at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, and here is what he had to say:

"Congratulations for successfully collecting a young leaf cutting ant (Atta sexdens) colony! Your little colony (containing a mated queen, perhaps 50-100 workers and small fungus garden) is now about one year old and so far has been growing relatively slowly. You are correct, established colonies can grow very quickly. Your colony is just entering the stage of rapid colony growth and in several years could contain 5-8 million workers and hundreds of melon-sized fungus gardens!

Obviously keeping a fully-grown colony in captivity would be next to impossible. Even so, many universities and insect zoos keep partially-grown colonies for research and/or public educational display, and these colonies are often hardy and long-lived. However, one year old colonies are relatively fragile since fewer workers are available to help maintain an optimal nest environment (100% RH; 25-27ยบ C) for fungal growth. Environmental stress, especially even slightly lower atmospheric humidity, can lead to garden decline and eventual colony collapse. Thus, it would be ideal to grow your colony at least somewhat larger (i.e., minimally several thousand workers and two large fungus gardens) and to do so as quickly as possible. Experience has shown that it is better to keep small colonies growing rapidly and then culling excess workers and fungus from time to time, rather than limiting plant matter (the latter essentially starves the fungus and makes it less productive and poorer food for the ants). Before you drop excess fungus gardens with attendant workers into the freezer, break apart and sort through the gardens to ensure that the queen is not present!

Maintaining observation nests for Atta can provide an endless source of educational fun. To be successful long term, one should become knowledgeable about the ants' sophisticated social organization and intimate association with their fungus gardens and other resident micro-organisms. It can also be helpful to think of yourself as the "Assistant Fungus Gardener" with your primary job to do whatever is necessary to help the ants maintain a nest environment conducive to fungal growth. If the fungus thrives so will its ant colony.

Please find a document summarizing Atta biology and one husbandry system that has proven to be effective here: Leaf cutting ants-IECC 08.pdf. Of course other culturing techniques may also work as long as the needs of the fungus come first. Good luck, thanks for writing and please keep us posted on how your work with Atta is progressing.

Randy Morgan, Corrie Moreau & AskAnt Team