The nests of fungus-growing ants avoid flood damage and create uniform microclimates via necklace-like or tree-like architecture.


Leafcutter ants are among the most sophisticated non-human farmers on Earth. They grow crops of a special kind of fungus, which they then eat. The ants “plant” their gardens by spreading bits of leaf around the garden area. The bits of leaf are inoculated with a special kind of bacteria that the ants cultivate. The bacteria convert the leaf bits into a food that the fungus can eat. The fungus then produces a food that the ants can eat.

Image: Alex Wild /

Mycocepurus fungus-growing ants attach their fungal gardens from the ceiling of their nest chambers, and the gardens hang down like curtains.

Image: Alex Wild / /

Workers of the tiny fungus-growing ant Mycocepurus can be recognized by the crown of spines on the thorax.

The Strategy

The ants build their nests underground, with a system of chambers and tunnels. The gardens are suspended from the ceilings of the chambers, and the ants tend them by continually adding bits of leaf.

Two different species studied both built nests with two different general floor plans: “tree-like” or “necklace-like.”

In tree-like forms, a vertical central shaft reached out with long branches, each ending in a mall room.

In the necklace-like nests, the vertical central shaft is interrupted by chambers, directly leading in and out of each one.

The flow of heat, gases, and moisture throughout the nests creates different microclimates which are useful for managing the growth of the “farming plots” in each chamber.

The Potential

The leafcutter ants’ ability to cultivate a crop of food-producing fungus could be emulated at many different scales. For example, the same principles could be used to cultivate mushrooms or other fungi for food. Alternatively, the ants’ method of using bacteria to convert leaves into a food that the fungus can eat could be used to convert other kinds of organic waste into a food source.

Last Updated August 18, 2016