A Moment of Science

The First Farmers

Farming has been a useful tool for a long long time, and not just for humans!

leafcutter ant crawling next to a leaf

Photo: Malin Björnsdotter Åberg

The more developed leaf-cutter ants grow fungus in football-sized gardens outside their nests.

Did you know that farming began about ten thousand years ago?

Actually, before humans, there were other species that deliberately grew their own food.

Humans are only the 4th animal to discover farming, after ants, termites, and bark beetles. In fact, ants had a huge head start over humans. They discovered farming about fifty million years ago, a little while after dinosaurs became extinct.

What did they farm? Wheat? Barley?

Try fungus. Instead of going out and hunting smaller insects like their ancestors, ants that belong to what is called the “attine” group, figured out not one but two different ways to grow fungus. The more primitive ants go out and collect dead leaves and flowers, bring them back to their nests, and add bits of fungus. In a few days, they have enough fungal tissue to eat and to feed their young ones. On the other hand, the more developed leaf-cutter ants grow fungus in football-sized gardens outside their nests.

There are some neat parallels with human farmers. For example, there are human desert cultures that eat only a single kind of crop (although in this case we’re talking animal rather than vegetable). Plus, in the same way that humans cross their crops with wild strains to help the crops survive new diseases, ants gather new strains of fungus when their crops die out.

Not bad for insects with fewer than half-a-million brain cells.

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