Photo: grytr (flickr)
Who were the first farmers on Earth?
You might think it was the Babylonians or another group in the Middle East. But humans are newcomers when it comes to the fine art of raising food. Leafcutter ants of arid and tropical regions of South, Central and North America have been farming for fifty million years, long before modern humans existed.
Leafcutter ants have large jaws to cut through plant and tree leaves, but they do not eat leaves. Instead, they carry leaf pieces back to their five million or so nest mates. Here is where the farming begins. Foraging ants hand their leaves over to smaller ants who rush them off to one of many football sized chambers. The leaves are then chewed into smaller and smaller fragments until they can be added to a fungus culture garden. Fungi feed off the leaves and grow bodies called gongylidia which are then distributed around the colony, especially to growing larvae.
Fungus may not sound too appetizing, but the white fluffy growths are much more nutritious than leaves. We use a similar process with cows. They are fed grasses which we can’t digest to create milk and meat.
The leafcutters not only grow crops, they also protect them. While we use man-made pesticides, leafcutters use antibiotics made by their skin bacteria to ward off invasive mold. They also physically remove foreign fungi growing in their gardens. Their system of agriculture is one to be admired. It certainly has passed the test of time.