Leafcutter, or “cutter” ants, get their name from their habit of taking the leaves off of shrubs and other plants. The workers cut the leaves into small pieces and carry them to the nest. Many people use the name “parasol ants” because the workers carry the pieces of leaf above their bodies as they march to the nest.
There are two species of leafcutter ants in the U.S. The Texas leafcutter ants, Atta texana (Buckley), are found from central Texas eastward into Louisiana. The other species, Atta mexicana, is found in Arizona.
The workers in a colony of leafcutter ants vary in size. The small workers are about 1/16″ long. The large, or major workers can be as large as 0.5″ long. When the ants start harvesting leaves, they divide the work. The largest workers take the leaves off of the plant. The workers that are next in size bite the leaves into pieces. The next size workers carry the pieces of leaf back to the nest. The smallest workers make the leaf particles into pulp.
The leafcutter ants use the pieces of leaf as a medium for growing fungus. They grow the fungus as a food supply. Leafcutter ants can use the leaves of grass as well as the leaves of trees and shrubs. A colony can remove all of the leaves from a tree overnight. This can make the trees and shrubs look unsightly. It also upsets homeowners when they see the trees.
Leafcutter ants make their nest in the soil. They often stay in the nest during the hottest part of the day. They are usually active after dusk and at night. The workers can forage more then 500 feet. They forage until they find a suitable plant. Then they remove leaves, flowers, and sometimes fruit. When there were not any suitable plants, leafcutter ants have also been found transporting corn, animal feed, and other food materials to the nest.