It may surprise some homeowners to know that not all species of ant are hunting for spills and sweets inside the home. There are many species of ant in North America and some such as the leaf cutter ant, actually cause problems outside of the home as opposed to indoors.
This ant is a major problem for homeowners with gardens and ornamental plants due to foliage disruption that can kill plants and trees.
With this in mind, how do you get rid of leaf cutter ants? To get rid of leaf cutter ants, insecticide treatments on the mounds and along their trails are the best eradication method. Baits are not usually effective since this ant species only eats the fungus made in their mounds.
Although leaf cutter ants are found in only a few different regions in the continental United States, the destruction these ants can cause to foliage requires them to be taken seriously. This guide will explore everything there is to know about this species of ant and the best methods to rid leaf cutter ants from your property.
What Are Leaf Cutter Ants?
The leaf cutter ant is a destructive ant species that originates in Central and South America. The ant receives its name due to its shredding of plant leaves as well as other parts of a plant or crop. In the US, these ants are commonly referred to as the Texas leaf cutter ant or, the fungus-growing ant.
These ants are commonly reported throughout the state of Texas, especially East Texas. They have also been found in Louisiana, Southern California, and Northern Mexico.
The ants are known as fungus growers due to the practice of shredding leaves and plants and carrying the foliage back to their mound where they cultivate the organic matter into a fungus that they eat.
It’s a common misconception to assume that the ants eat leaves and plants outright but that’s not exactly correct.
Leaf cutter ants are live in colonies just like any other ant species with workers, soldiers, males, and one queen deep within the mound that handles reproduction. The ants are typically light red in color if viewed from a distance but up close, they are dark brown. The workers are typically ½ inch long and the queen is about ¾ inch.
This ant species has very long legs and is distinct from common species like sugar ants thanks to their large bodies and three spines on the thorax. Another distinctive feature of this ant is the large mandibles on the worker ants’ jaws. These mandibles are for leaf shredding but they can and do bite if threatened and the force can cause noticeable pain and drawn blood.
Leaf cutter ants also have very long rear legs that look almost spider-like.
Leaf Cutter Ant Behavior
The leaf cutter ant has very unique behavioral traits. Once a queen establishes a nest and workers are developed, the workers immediately get started with foraging for vegetation to bring back to the colony.
Leaf cutter ants survive on a self-grown fungus that sits within the nest. All types of ants in the colony eat the fungus, which is cultivated over time due in part to the decay of the foliage mixed with saliva secretions from the workers.
A steady stream of workers regularly harvests leaves and fragments which they carry over their heads throughout the summer months.
During the autumn months, leaf cutter ant workers increase their foraging output to ensure a steady stream of fungus is available in the nest during the cooler months. In addition to workers and the queen, larger soldier leaf cutter ants will also guard the nest against intruders and scavengers.
This ant species is typically an outdoor species; however, there have been reports of leaf cutter ants invading homes since they prefer to scout for viable foliage wherever they can find it. This species remains minimally active during the winter months thanks to the mild winters in their known regions.
Leaf Cutter Ant Nests
If there is one trait that is immediately noticeable with leaf cutter ants it is their abnormally large nest mounds. Each nest can contain anywhere from 1 to 2 million ants, and the nest can expand up to 50 feet underground.
The above the ground entrance and exit mounds are typically reddish-brown in color and resemble several small craters upwards of 15 inches high.
These large craters pose problems to homeowners since the mounds are usually numerous with tunnels that range 300-400 feet horizontally underground. When a colony is this large, the actual nest can be as deep as 20 feet underground and this many leaf cutter ants can strip trees and bushes bare overnight.
Complicating eradication methods is the fact that this cavernous nest system makes treatment with traditional pesticides nearly impossible. Additionally, the foraging activities of the workers usually take place overnight when human and predator activity is minimal.
How Much Damage Do Leaf Cutter Ants Cause?
Due to the enormous size of a leaf cutter ant colony, and the large size of the worker ants in general, this species wrecks havoc on nearby foliage of virtually every kind. Even during late autumn and winter the ants are active and will resort to foraging pine needles and evergreens if necessary.
The damage radius is mostly contained to the area surrounding a nest, but as mentioned, this species of ant will even venture indoors when seeking foliage or organic matter that can be cultivated into their preferred fungus.
Their choice of foliage is selective, but the ants can strip practically any kind of tree bare in as little as 24 hours if necessary.
Furthermore, the large craters and painful bites that regularly happen when homeowners spend large amounts of time outdoors are also problematic. In short, this is an ant species that must be controlled to prevent a complete takeover of a property.
Since the ants will forage for multiple types of leafy vegetation, there is no way to assume that certain types of vegetation will be left alone in favor of other types.
How To Get Rid of Leaf Cutter Ants
Eradicating leaf cutter ants from your property is tricky. Ant baits are also problematic because this species is not interested in traditional ant baits; they are only interested in bringing vegetation back to their nest.
With this in mind, there are only a couple of effective remedies to use as viable treatments. I recommend direct treatments to the mounds and along foraging trails to get the best results.
Let’s take a closer look at two products that work well against leaf cutter ants.
Deltagard granules are one of the very few pesticides labeled for use against leaf cutter ants. The granules contain deltamethrin, an effective and fairly safe insecticide that targets the central nervous system of insects. Once the ants contact and absorb the chemical, their nervous system is sent into shock causing paralysis and eventually death.
The granules can be spread out along the leaf cutting ant walking trails and the mounds. Then you saturate the granules with water which helps the pesticide mix with the soil and take effect. The result is certain death for ants that come into contact with the area.
One 20lb bag can cover up to 10,000 square feet, which should be enough for most infestations. Simply sprinkle 1 to 2 teaspoons of granules on top of each mound and moisten the product with a water hose or sprayer.
This product is highly effective but since the colonies are so vast, do not expect immediate results. It could potentially take multiple applications to destroy the entire colony.
- Effective and safe
- Works to destroy an entire leaf cutter ant colony
- Treats up to 10,000 square feet
- Can be used for any ant species
- Takes time to destroy a colony with multiple treatments
This product is not labeled for use with leaf cutter ants, so I can’t officially recommend you use a pesticide for dealing with leaf cutting ants, but you should be aware of how effective Termidor is against termites and carpenter ants!
Termidor is labeled to destroy subterranean termites, which is an insect that has very similar behavioral traits to leaf cutter ants. The label states that the product can be used for ants likely because of the similarities between the two insects.
The active pesticide in Termidor is fipronil, which is a chemical that blocks chloride channels within an insect’s central nervous system causing muscle spasms and death.
When applied into the soil, studies have found that this product remains effective at killing insects for 10 years or more! It’s also extremely effective at clearing termites because the chemical can stick to an insect and be spread around through the nest, acting similarly to bait without the need of the insect to feed on it.
- Targeted towards underground colony insects
- Effective for years
- Spreads easily amongst the colony
- Not labeled to treat leaf cutter ants
Can I Get Rid of Leaf Cutter Ants Naturally?
Natural remedies for leaf cutter ants are few and far between. Most natural remedies for insect pests are usually some form of repellent like essential oils which won’t be effective, certainly not outdoors. Repelling leaf cutter ants will likely not do much to prevent the ants from foraging.
Any viable natural remedy for this species of ant would likely be something that prevents the ants from reaching vegetation. You would have to think of a viable barrier that would physically prevent the ants from crawling up trees or onto leafy vegetation.
Erecting large-scale sticky traps around a tree could work but chances are, the ants would simply find a way to circumnavigate the traps and reach what it is they are seeking. You can make these traps by taping large strips of newspaper or paper bags together and applying something like glue boards around every perimeter of the bag.
The ants would become trapped on the glue or pry themselves off of the glue and scout another tree or bush to forage from. Ultimately, this would also take large amounts of time and would do nothing to destroy the colony and solve the problem for good.
Effective pesticides are the only useful ways to get rid of leaf cutter ants, and even these measures take time to work.
Can I Prevent Leaf Cutter Ants?
One of the large problems with this ant species is that it is nearly impossible to prevent the ants from colonizing a property. If a queen selects a certain area with ample vegetation to be harvested, this site will begin to foster a growing colony.
The best way to try and prevent a colony from growing is to regularly be on the lookout for mounds that pop up in the spring and summer. Once you find a mound, be sure to treat it with Deltaguard Granules and destroy the colony before it gets established.
If you allow mounds to remain undisturbed, it becomes much more difficult to get a handle on the infestation. Although prevention is hard, it is always a good idea to be on the lookout for mounds and address the problem immediately.
Are leaf cutter ant bites dangerous?
The leaf cutter ant will bite if you are in their way or they perceive you to be a threat to their colony or food source. The bite is quite painful and can even draw blood but there are no dangers to be wary of beyond that.
It is advisable to stay far away from these ants when they are on foraging trails as multiple bites from workers or soldiers at the nest could be painful.
What do leaf cutter ants eat?
Leaf cutter ants eat a type of fungus that they cultivate themselves inside of a nest. This fungus is made of vegetation, usually leaves, that is formed into a waxy mound due to the decay of the foliage and the enzymes in the saliva of worker leaf cutter ants.
They do not eat leaves directly, and this is why the ants are always carrying leafy foliage above their heads along their trails.
Do leaf cutter ants have wings?
Leaf cutter ants do not have wings, except for in the Spring when they are mating. In those cases, the males grow wings and will be flying around to mate with a flying queen.
In summary, leaf cutter ants are a destructive species of ant common in Texas, Louisiana, southern California, and northern Mexico. This species of ant is hard to eradicate due to the size of their colony and their preoccupation with leafy vegetation that is formed into a fungus inside of the nest for food.
Treatments for this ant species are small, and pesticide granules activated at the mounds and along the worker trails are the most effective. This species of ant should be addressed sooner rather than later since a large colony can strip trees and surrounding vegetation at record speed.