Ant Gardeners

On Monday afternoon I went out to my garden to harvest spinach and chard for the evening meal. However, I discovered some friends who were also helping themselves to the spinach and devastating the beets: Texas Leaf Cutting Ants (Atta texana.) I hadn’t noticed any sign of them the previous morning, but in less than a day they had eaten about one third of my beets to the ground and severely damaged the rest.

Initially panicked and upset about the rapid loss of my one of my favorite vegetables, I couldn’t help being fascinated by these creatures as I observed their hard work. The ant formation carried off pieces of leaf ranging in size from a dime to a nickel. The leafcutting ants are fellow gardeners who use the leaves as food for fungus that they raise back in the mound.

I was unable to find their nest with my initial observations. However, according to the Texas Extension, the ants will travel up to 600 feet from their mound in search of green matter, so it is quite possible that their home base is not in my yard. Some colonies may contain as many as two million ants, but I think that I am dealing with a much smaller settlement.

After about 45 minutes of awe and respect I decided to try to protect what was left of my beets. I dusted them with diatomaceous earth, hoping to at least create a physical barrier between the tender leaves and the ant mandibles. I can’t yet say whether or not the DE worked, because that night the temperature dropped to near freezing and has stayed cool all week. The ants are not generally active at temperatures below 45 degrees.

Amazing. That’s exactly how my chard and spinach look this year, and early on it seemed like there was an insect to blame, but I’ve eventually come around to blaming the squirrels.

Do these tend to come around during the day, or night?
# Posted By Kelly | 1/29/09 9:11 PM

I noticed the ants about an hour before sunset, but judging by the damage they had already been there for a while.
# Posted By Geoff | 1/30/09 6:31 PM

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