Leafcutter ants are becoming an increasingly common problem in residential areas, particularly in the southern United States. They can become pests in agricultural settings such as farms but also be found in yards, gardens, and even our homes.
To get rid of leaf cutter ants, the most successful method is to apply insecticides around and on their anthill mounds. Because this ant species only feed on fungus produced in their mounds, baits are usually ineffective.
They reproduce really quickly, so early identification and treatment are key to eliminating a leafcutter ant infestation.
Here’s everything you need to know about leafcutter ants and how to deal with them:
What Are Leafcutter Ants?
Leafcutter ants are an invasive species of ants native to America. As the name suggests, they destroy plant life by cutting up leaves and converting them to fungus in subterranean nests.
Due to large infestations in Texas, they are also known as Texas leafcutter ants and fungus-growing ants. They are also quite common in Louisiana, California and northern Mexico.
People often think that these ants eat the leaves directly, but this is not accurate. They live in colonies with elaborate hierarchies that denote specific tasks to be performed by each ant. Here are the broad classifications:
- Workers: The workers are the smallest ants, measuring ½ an inch. They tend to the growing fungus and take care of the larvae.
- Soldiers: Soldier ants are larger than the workers and defend the foraging ants. They guard the lines of leaf-carrying ants and attack any threats.
- Guards: These are the largest ants. Their main function is to protect the ant colony and nest from any predators. Due to their strength, they also clear the path of debris for foragers.
- Foragers: These are male ants that forage for leaves and are tasked with cutting up leaves and carrying them back to the forest. They are also the ones who mate with the queen ant, so they contribute to the multiplication of the colony.
- Queen Ant: The queen ant lays eggs and is the founder of the ant colony. She is significantly larger than the other ants, measuring about ¾th of an inch long. She also grows wings at some point in her life but loses them while mating.
Leafcutter ants appear red in color at first glance, but they are actually brown when viewed up close. They have very long legs and large mandibles on their jaws to bite off pieces of leaves.
If provoked, they may bite humans too. The bite of a leafcutter ant is incredibly painful and could cause bleeding too.
The Living Habits of Leafcutter Ants
Leafcutter ants exhibit different behavior than other species of ants. The colony is started by the queen—she establishes a nest and lays the eggs. Once the larvae hatch, the forager ants immediately start bringing back leaves for the colony.
Leafcutter ants survive on a diet of fungus grown from the foraged leaves. The ants use a chemically reactive method to develop the fungus. They also secrete enzymes and amino acids to help the growth of the fungus.
All the leafcutter ants in the colony survive the same diet of self-grown fungus. Thus, they take extremely good care of it. Forager ants have also been known to consume tree sap.
The ants secrete substances to kill toxic fungus. Certain types of leaves can also be harmful to the fungus. Leafcutter ants can identify them from chemical signals produced by the fungus and stop foraging these leaves.
These ants also have an effective waste management system. The older and weaker ants are in charge of removing waste and transporting it to a designated area. Other ants turn the waste at regular intervals to help it decompose.
The leafcutter ants practice a mutualistic lifestyle—they cannot live without the fungus and the fungus can’t survive without their help.
The foragers usually venture out at night to avoid meeting predators. Human activity is also low at this time, which is why leafcutter ant infestations often take longer to detect.
The forager ants collect leaves all through summer and amp up the collection during the autumn to stock up for the colder weather ahead. Leafcutter ants are typically quite inactive during the winter.
They are typically found outdoors, but there have been leafcutter ants infestations in homes too. They can survive wherever there is viable foliage, so if you have an indoor garden or many potted plants, they could target your home too.
Leafcutter Ant Nests
Leafcutter ants live in extremely large mound nests. More than a million ants live in a single nest and the extensive network can reach up to 50 feet into the ground. Above ground, the visible part of the mound is reddish-brown and about 15 inches high.
The nests pose a huge problem when they are created in homes because there are numerous tunnels, measuring up to 400 feet horizontally and are anywhere between 15 to 50 feet deep.
Some parts of the nest are used for cultivating the fungus, while others are for the larvae or waste management. Different areas are assigned to young and adult ants depending on the functions they perform.
Leafcutter ants usually choose moist and loamy soil for constructing their nest mounds. They can be found near water sources like streams, creek beds, or ditches.
The nest mound is a complex structure with extensive tunnels, different chambers, and multiple entries and exits that look like little craters.
The nests are so densely populated that they can strip lush overgrown trees almost overnight. Eliminating such an infestation is extremely complicated because traditional pesticides do not work on mounds covering such a large area.
Damage Caused by Leafcutter Ants
Leafcutter ants attack all plant life. Owing to the extremely large size of their colonies, they can completely destroy a tree within 24 hours if they need to.
They have even been known to forage pine needles and leaves from evergreen trees during their inactive periods in the winter.
Leafcutter ants primarily target surrounding areas for foliage. They are quite selective with the kind of foliage they look for. Once it runs out, they might be prompted to forage indoors for any organic material they can use.
They can also cause painful bites to humans if provoked while foraging. If not detected and eradicated in time, they can take over your entire property.
Leafcutter ants are considered dangerous agricultural pests and millions of dollars worth of damage in agricultural regions in America.
How to Get Rid of Leafcutter Ants
Getting rid of leafcutter ants is quite tricky. You cannot bait them like normal ants because they have a set behavior pattern—they forage for selective leaves and foliage and bring it back to their nest.
First of all, carefully go through your entire property. Bare trees and plants and cut-up leaves are the first indications of a leafcutter ant infestation. You might even see lines of leafcutter ants carrying the leaves back to their mound.
Leafcutter ants only forage at night in the summer, so it is not always possible to catch them in the act. If you’ve found torn leaves and bare stems, you should look for the nest mounds next.
Do not expect to find the nest near the foraging area. It could be up to 200 feet away from the place they are collecting foliage from.
They love moisture and usually build their nest in sandy or loamy soil, so if there are any water sources nearby, the nest should be located near them.
Once you’ve located the nest, there are several different methods you could try. Here are all the ways to get rid of a leafcutter ant infestation.
The most effective method is to apply insecticide directly to the nest mound to eradicate the leafcutter ant population.
Read the instructions and label of the insecticide carefully to make sure it will work on leafcutter ants. Spray it generously all over the leafcutter ant nest.
Soak the mound completely because it extends several feet underground both vertically and horizontally. To cover all your bases, spray liberally on the foraging paths too. The affected vegetation should also be sprayed with the insecticide.
Insecticidal dust can also be used for eliminating leafcutter ants. However, it is not the most efficient method as it doesn’t soak through the mound and is not effective for larger colonies.
Do not expect that a single treatment will eradicate the colony. The nests are quite vast and it could take multiple applications to completely get rid of leafcutter ants.
Stay away from this area for at least 2 to 4 hours. Make sure your children or pets don’t go near the treated areas either.
For whatever reason, if you do not want to or can’t spray insecticide directly on the leafcutter ant nest, but want to protect certain trees and plants, you can add protection to the foliage manually.
First, trim down all the branches of the trees that touch the ground or any walls. Next, take rectangular pieces of paper and tape them to the entire length and width of the tree trunk.
Buy a can of insect trap coating and brush it onto the paper cover on the tree. Do not leave any gaps that could become a path for the ants.
Check the traps every few days. Once it hardens, apply a fresh coating to the insect trap. Remove the pieces of paper when they are full of ants and stick fresh pieces of paper. Do this for all the trees or plants you want to protect from leafcutter ants.
Living organisms can also be used to bring the leafcutter ant population under control. This method is non-toxic and does not affect any other living parts of the ecosystem.
There are certain fungi that can be introduced to the ecosystem that will cause a dramatic drop in the leafcutter population.
There are also species of birds, wasps, and beetles that prey on leafcutter ants. Introducing them into the ecosystem is also an organic method of eradicating leafcutter ants.
There are several agricultural methods that tackle the infestation in a direct manner. Plowing is the most effective of these methods. Plowing the field in the initial stages of the infestation will effectively get rid of the leafcutter population.
Agricultural methods like crop rotation also reduce the chances of a leafcutter ant infestation.
Growing plants like sesame, eucalyptus, and sweet potato can also drive away leafcutter ants.
Preventing Leafcutter Ants
It is quite difficult to prevent a leafcutter ant infestation. If a queen ant decides to start a colony in a certain area, there isn’t anything you can do until you notice the ants or the mound and start the eradication process.
The most you can do is keep a sharp lookout during summer and spring for any small mounds on your property. If you spot any, spray them with insecticide immediately.
The longer the nest is active, the harder it is to get rid of it. Rather than prevention, focus on early detection and eradication.
Leafcutter ants are one of the hardest pests to deal with. There aren’t that many natural methods to get rid of them and they aren’t as effective as chemical methods.
One way to keep leafcutter ants off your property is to grow insect repellant plants. Lemongrass, bay leaves, and eucalyptus are all good options. Leafcutter ants do not like these plants and usually leave them alone.
The other method is to use sticky insect traps around the trees on your property. The leafcutter ants will stick to the traps and most of them will die.
However, none of these methods are foolproof or completely effective. Using a strong leafcutter ant insecticide is the only sure-shot method to completely eradicate a leafcutter ant infestation.
What Home Remedy Kills Leafcutter Ants?
Leafcutter ants are quite difficult to get rid of. If you have an infestation on your hands, the best idea is to douse the nest with insecticide.
If you have a smaller infestation and want to try a non-toxic method, you can make a DIY insecticide at home.
You need neem oil and normal dish soap. Mix 2 tablespoons each of neem oil and dish soap in 20 ounces of water and pour the mixture into a spray bottle.
Generously spray all the affected areas. This DIY insecticide will work on other insects like aphids too.
Another home remedy for leafcutter ants is a powder mixture of cayenne pepper and baby powder. Sprinkle this dust all over the trails of the leafcutter ants and it will hopefully suffocate them.
What Plants Do Leafcutter Ants Avoid?
Leafcutter ants convert the leaves of plants into a fungus for their consumption. Any plants that are unsuitable for this process are avoided by leafcutter ants.
Eucalyptus is a popular option because it interferes with the neurological system of leafcutter ants. In fact, it causes confusion and death among most agricultural pests.
Bay leaves and lemongrass plants are also avoided by leafcutter ants. You can also mix dry bay leaves in mulch and spread it around your property.
Are Leafcutter Ants Beneficial?
Leafcutter ants are considered agricultural pests and are mostly destroyed whenever discovered. However, they do play an important role in the larger ecosystem.
They provide balance to their habitats and stimulate the growth of new plants. Leafcutter ants also break down plant materials and increase the number of nutrients in the soil.
Their efficient waste management and fungal production help in nitrogen fixation. They also act as a barrier between pathogenic microbes and the environment.
They do this by suppressing the growth of any microorganisms that could be harmful to them or their colony.
Like all organisms on the planet, leafcutter ants have a place in the ecosystem and are beneficial in different areas. However, they are destructive to agriculture and residential gardening.
Therefore, it is recommended that any infestation should be immediately dealt with, otherwise, it could wreak havoc on the surrounding areas.
Leafcutter ants can certainly cause you a lot of distress if they take hold of your property. They cause rapid destruction and multiply very quickly, occupying several feet of your property underground.
The most important part of getting rid of a leafcutter ant infestation is to detect their presence as soon as possible.
There are many ways to get rid of leafcutter ants but the most effective one by far is to douse their nest, foraging trail, and surrounding foliage with a strong insecticide.
Leafcutter ants are a persistent species and it may take multiple applications to get rid of them.
If you keep a sharp lookout for leafcutter ants and deal with them in a timely manner, you can effectively get rid of them for sure. Refer to the alternative methods listed above if you want more ideas on how to get rid of leafcutter ants.