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Cheeto's Ultimate Guide to Leafcutter Ants™

leafcutter ants atta acromyrmex trachymyrmex attini fungus growers fungus growing ants

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#1 Offline CheetoLord02 - Posted March 10 2021 - 12:18 PM

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Prelude

I do want to preface this by saying that while everything in this topic is what I personally have observed, read about, and practiced with my own fungus growing ants, it isn't necessarily 100% true. Nothing says that my experiences with my colonies will 100% reflect others' experiences, however this is meant to serve as a guide to how I've had such success with these ants and to clear up any misconceptions that may be floating around about them.

This topic will be covering the main range of fungus growing ants that people in the US would expect to keep; Atta, Acromyrmex, and Trachymyrmex.

Before we start, I do want to link my two main leafcutter journals, my Atta mexicana and Acromyrmex versicolor, as well as the Antkeeping & Ethology Discord server and my website, arthropodantics.com.
 

 

The Golden Rule

With that out of the way, let's start with what I would consider the golden rule when it comes to these species: NEVER HEAT FUNGUS GROWERS. I've seen this done too many times and it needs to be put out there that fungus growing ants do horribly in too hot of temperatures. I've found that temperatures over 85f are lethal to the fungus, and more than even a few minutes at these temperatures can cause fungus to die at an irreversible rate. Now, this may be hard to believe considering that species like Acromyrmex versicolor and Atta mexicana live in the desert, where it can reach well over 110f, but this same statement holds true for them. In the wild their nests are constructed in a specific way to allow for ventilation into the lower chambers to control temperature, and the nests themselves are several feet underground to insulate the fungus from the summer sun. With Atta especially, too warm of temperatures can not only kill fungus but also cause the workers to stop foraging entirely, creating a snowball effect. Generally an ambient heat that is less than 85f is fine, however anything more than that or any direct heat is almost always a bad idea.

 

 

Leafcutter Setup Tips

The next thing that people should know is what setups are suitable for leafcutters, and for many the answer may be more simple than expected. One further rule I'll add is to never use a test tube with fungus growers. As we all know cotton balls just love to mold over, and this mold growth is a death sentence for any fungus that may have been started in the test tube. Instead an ideal setup is a deli cup (I suggest <4oz in general, although >3oz for Atta) with a base of an absorbent material, such as Plaster of Paris, Ultracal 30, or Hydrostone. This base layer only needs to be around 1-2cm deep, and can be hydrated by simply opening the lid of the setup and dripping water directly onto the base. Avoid getting water on the fungus itself if possible. Another setup that works wonderfully for semiclaustral fungus growers (everything except Atta) is Ray Mendez' hydrostone petri dish founding formicarium. This video by Miles Maxcer at The Ant Network details how to build one: https://youtu.be/iceahERV8DU. This setup was used not by myself but another keeper in Arizona for Acromyrmex versicolor queens, and the ability to add an outworld to the setup increased their success rate to near 100%. This is definitely contrary to what the expectation of Acromyrmex is in the hobby:

 

Acromyrmex
 
 

It just shows that a proper setup, diet, and conditions are all you need to be successful with these species. Do your research!

Once the colonies outgrow their founding formicaria, the options do increase a bit, however the basic principle of a layer of an absorbent material at the bottom will stay consistent. You can use any shape of container with any rigid material and a lid for a nest, so get creative! You also may want to introduce a third container, a trash chamber. This can just be a bare container hooked up to the nest, and you can teach the colony to put their trash in it by manually moving their trash into it from wherever they were previously placing it. They'll get the hint and start putting all trash in this designated chamber.

In addition to the possible setups, our nests over at https://www.arthropodantics.com/ were designed with leafcutter ants, specifically Acromyrmex versicolor, in mind. They're a perfect option for genera like Trachymyrmex and Acromyrmex, and may even be suitable for small Atta colonies. Check them out!

 

 

General Important Info

Here's a few more things to keep in mind when considering leafcutter ant care.

1: A varied diet is important. Even if you offer their favorite food constantly, the ants will eventually refuse it. This is a natural instinct that they have in order to not completely wipe out one species of plant in their area in the wild.

2: Always overestimate the food intake (if you want fast growth). These ants can process a LOT of plants, so don't hold back!

3: Fungus doesn't live forever. Don't be concerned if you see fungus dying, it's normal! So long as the colony is still feeding their fungus, and as long as the fungus isn't dying at a rate faster than the new fungus is growing, then everything is fine.

4: The sooner you get your queens after a flight, the better chances are that they still have a fungus pellet. It's worth it to go out to areas where these ants are present when they're likely to fly, as getting queens before they start digging is the best way to ensure they still have fungus.

 

With the general information out of the way, I'd like to delve into some specifics for each genus/species in question. 


Trachymyrmex: They Cut Leaves!

I'm going to start with Trachymyrmex, as there is quite a lot of misconceptions revolving around this genus that I'd like to clear up. Most people likely hear that Trachymyrmex spp, are not "leafcutter ants", and assume that because of this label they use the other lower-attine diet, such as caterpillar frass. In truth, the term "leafcutter ant" is assigned to the clade of fungus growers consisting of Acromyrmex, Atta, and Amoimyrmex. The reason why genera like Trachymyrmex, Paratrachymyrmex, Mycetomoellerius, etc. are not part of this clade is not because they don't cut leaves, but instead because they are not polymorphic. Despite the designation as not being part of the "leafcutter ant" clade, they are still ants who cut leaves. Being a higher attine, much of their natural diet still consists of fresh plant material. Just in case you aren't convinced, here's some evidence:

 

FC user Mdrogun's T. septentrionalis journal: https://www.formicul...septentrionalis
and some of his videos showcasing this behavior: 

 

 

 

Photos and a video from FC user Aaron567 of wild Trachymyrmex in his area:

image0 (1)
image0 (2)
image0
image1
 

 

My personal colony:


Fx6ZeYxRXndj1wl1QHPCD5qhRv2CBOoG RJTJvt wWVmZixpXqZTZyk1okbJzxZeFe0IM5urGgDjyOgZFvMSWYl4IoO9wEfiorlq
 
 

Other's posts:

BugGuide post from Maryland: https://bugguide.net...w/493276/bgpage
iNaturalist observation from Maryland: https://www.inatural...ations/48877321

And this isn't just T. septentrionalis!

Here's an iNat observation from AZ, of what's likely T. desertorum: https://www.inatural...ations/30592521

T. desertorum also is regarded with "Foragers have been observed to collect green leaflets and fresh flower petals"
 

So while yes, Trachymyrmex are not a member of the "leafcutter ant" clade, they are still higher attines. Stop saying their diet is mostly caterpillar frass, it's not true.

With that out of the way, here's a bit of extra info of various foods I've had success with:

Steel Cut Oats (their favorite)
Rose Petals

Iceberg and Romaine Lettuce
Oxalis spp. leaves 
Mesquite spp. leaves
Oak Leaves


Another thing to note with most Trachymyrmex species, especially septentrionalis, is that they appear to require a diapause of some sort. Typically in the winter you'll see them disassembling and discarding large volumes of their fungus, and this is a sign that they're ready to go into diapause. To do this, simply reduce the temperature to something around 50f. Typically a fridge is not necessary, but a well insulated garage or just a cool room is enough. You can also use a wine cooler with more easily preset temperatures to make it not as cold as a typical fridge. Typically only around 2 months of diapause is required. It's possible that they're able to not diapause at all, however the process appears to be beneficial and possibly tied to some kind of biological clock. However until they start disassembling their fungus, you can care for them as normal. Only once they do this is it time to diapause them.

 

With Trachymyrmex out of the way, let's move on!

 

 

Acromyrmex (specifically A. versicolor)

This genus, and more specifically this species, has troubled antkeepers in the southwest for years now. However, with my personal experiences this species isn't too difficult, and while I'd consider them the most difficult of the 3 genera in this post, they're certainly far from impossible. As mentioned before, founding for this species almost entirely relies in a good setup. Getting a queen with a fungus pellet that survives in general is a game of luck, but so long as you get that and put her in a suitable setup it should be clean sailing from there. Acromyrmex versicolor queens with an outworld are almost like fully claustral queens, as A. versicolor tend to take, and even prefer dried foods. In the wild, colonies will gather large collections of plants around their nest entrances to allow them to dry out, before bringing them into the nest.

Here's some pictures from a local colony here in Mesa:

 

IMG 20181124 145118588 HDR (1)
IMG 20181124 144959973
 
 
As well as pictures from a friend in Tucson:

IMG 1357
IMG 1382
 

 

This also ties into colony founding, and really pushes the importance of an outworld. If the typical deli cup founding nest is used, food will remain wet because of the humidity in the chamber, and this can discourage queens from eating it. Instead in an outworld the food will dry out, and the founding queens can just come out and grab a piece whenever they need. Using a method similar to this you can expect that so long as queens have a fungus pellet, they will be almost guaranteed to succeed. You can also boost failed groups with the fungus from successful groups and get a success rate of almost 100%.

Founding with multiple queens together also increases the success rate, however it should be noted that most A. versicolor populations will seemingly not stay polygynous long-term. Ray Mendez observed that in Arizona, only the A. versicolor populations in and around the Tucson area are polygynous long-term, although this could use some more testing, especially outside of AZ.

Post-founding care is relatively similar, basically just give them plants that they like and keep them at an appropriate temperature and they'll do just fine. One thing to note is that once they outgrow their founding setup, a setup with a lower ceiling is ideal, since they prefer to hang their gardens from the top of the setup. Just check out my colony doing this:
 

IMG 20210203 194027954 HDR
IMG 20210815 212440889

 

 
 

Now for foods that I've had success with:

Texas Sage flowers (their favorite)
Clovers (dried)
Mesquite spp. leaves
Steel-cut oats
Palo Verde Leaves
Mesquite flowers
Palo Verde Flowers

A. versicolor flight info:

Typically during the wet/monsoon season in the Southwest, typically from July to early October.
Flights will be first thing in the morning after a heavy rainstorm. (around 5am)
Queens will mate on the ground, so you can throw queens and males together and they will mate.
Flights are too late to blacklight, it will be far too bright out, however the alates are easy to find, and often even make giant piles on the ground to mate.





Atta
 

Some of you may be surprised when I say this, but Atta are almost certainly the easiest genus on this list. They are absolutely the easiest to deal with founding, as they are fully claustral. Just stick them in a proper deli cup setup and come back 6 weeks later to a nice chunk of fungus and 50-60 workers. This huge amount of nanitics is also a huge factor since they're able to process far more plant material after founding than the other genera. Once the deli cup starts to get cramped, a larger setup following the same principles is all they need. To move Atta, just use a rubber glove to protect yourself and pic up the entire fungus garden at once and move it to the new container. Once the colony gets too big to do this, invest in a modular setup, where you can simply attach new nesting space as needed.

All fungus growers, but Atta specifically have a great trait, which is the ability to easily limit their colony size. Since the queen lays based on the volume of fungus present, you can keep the food intake to a rate where the garden stays small, and the colony never grows. E. O. Wilson did this in his lab, and described it as a "bonsai" Atta colony. So yes, while Atta naturally get millions of workers, you can easily limit them to any size you want in captivity.

Their diet is also fairly easy, especially as the colony gets bigger. Smaller colonies will be more picky, since one bad food item could compromise the entire fungus garden, but as they get larger they will be less cautious and take in a much wider variety of food. As long as the food you offer is good, this can mean some pretty tremendous growth!

I have heard also that the hardest part about Atta is keeping a consistent humidity and temperature. With Atta mexicana this is not the case. They are extremely tolerant of a wide range of temperatures and humidity, and so long as you make sure they're not too hot (over 85f) and the setup has water, they'll be ok. These plaster leafcutter setups hold water for weeks at a time, so don't stress about watering them every single day. This may not be true for other tropical Atta species, however I'm sure they're not too much different than A. mexicana.

 

IMG 20210820 143701077
IMG 20210820 143642646 HDR
IMG 20210609 145006553 2

 

 
 

Lastly, let's go over some prime Atta food:

Oxalis spp. (O. stricta and related species)
Clovers

Nerium Oleander flowers
Mesquite spp. leaves
Oak Leaves
Roses
Steel-cut oats
Various other broad-leaves and flowers 

Atta flight info:

A. mexicana fly in the early morning in the wet season.
In Mexico their flights typically start in June, but in the Sonoran Desert/AZ they don't fly until the monsoon season, which typically starts in July.
Their ideal amount of rainfall is around 1cm. If it rains too much more than that, they will wait a day before flying.
They fly earlier than Acromyrmex, beginning to take off while it's still dark (around 4am typically)

Atta texana fly at the same time of day, however earlier in the year.
Heat and humidity are the main triggers for texana, with a low in the 70s or higher being preferred. Typically a warm day after a heavy rain is a good time to look.
The bulk of flights are in April and May, however they may start as early as February in certain areas.

 

And that's just about everything I can think to include! I'll try to answer any specific questions if they pop up, but I really hope this guide will come in handy for people who are just starting to keep these species!
 


Edited by CheetoLord02, August 28 2021 - 8:40 PM.

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#2 Offline M_Ants - Posted March 10 2021 - 12:53 PM

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Good job on this. Looks like it probably took some time. Unfortunately the only fungus growing ant I can easily get my hands on is Cyphomymrex. Does any of this carry over to them or do you have any experience or advice with them? Thanks. 


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Veromessor pergandei- 1 queens 50ish workers

Myrmecocystus testaceus

Crematogaster sp. 

Acromyrmex

Camponotus yogi

Pogonomyrmex

https://www.youtube....FG7utFVBA/about


#3 Offline CheetoLord02 - Posted March 10 2021 - 12:55 PM

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Good job on this. Looks like it probably took some time. Unfortunately the only fungus growing ant I can easily get my hands on is Cyphomymrex. Does any of this carry over to them or do you have any experience or advice with them? Thanks. 

Cyphomyrmex are an entirely different beast since all in the US except C. wheeleri grow a yeast instead of a mycelium fungus. You can use the type of setups described in this post, and I'd also suggest following the golden rule of not heating them, but as for diet and other specifics I'm really not sure.


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#4 Offline M_Ants - Posted March 10 2021 - 12:58 PM

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Good job on this. Looks like it probably took some time. Unfortunately the only fungus growing ant I can easily get my hands on is Cyphomymrex. Does any of this carry over to them or do you have any experience or advice with them? Thanks. 

Cyphomyrmex are an entirely different beast since all in the US except C. wheeleri grow a yeast instead of a mycelium fungus. You can use the type of setups described in this post, and I'd also suggest following the golden rule of not heating them, but as for diet and other specifics I'm really not sure.

 

Okay thanks. It just so happens wheeleri are the Cyphos I can get. 


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Veromessor pergandei- 1 queens 50ish workers

Myrmecocystus testaceus

Crematogaster sp. 

Acromyrmex

Camponotus yogi

Pogonomyrmex

https://www.youtube....FG7utFVBA/about


#5 Offline StrickyAnts - Posted March 10 2021 - 1:32 PM

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legend


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#6 Offline MinigunL5 - Posted March 10 2021 - 3:35 PM

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How long do Trachymyrmex have to be in diapause?

ANTS I KEEP:

Formica subsericea queen with 2 workersLasius aphidicola queens-Camponotus pennsylvanicus queen| Camponotus novaeboracensis queen with ~35 workers10 Solenopsis molesta queens (together) with 5-10 workers| Lasius cf. neoniger queens| Apheonogaster fulva queenBrachymyrmex depilis queen| Myrmica cf. punctiventris queenStenamma brevicorne queen


#7 Offline B_rad0806 - Posted March 10 2021 - 4:46 PM

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Will definitely be following this for when I catch Acromyrmex this summer (assuming they fly) I appreciate the time you put into making this :)


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#8 Offline CheetoLord02 - Posted March 10 2021 - 4:51 PM

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How long do Trachymyrmex have to be in diapause?

It says in the post, but it's easy to miss. Around 2 months is fine, but you can do more to be safe.


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#9 Offline antsandmore - Posted March 10 2021 - 5:05 PM

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man thanks for doing this! I will definitely use this as information if I happen to somehow get my hands on acromyrmex versicolor or cyphomyrmex wheeleri. Thanks so much again!


Ants I am keeping:

 none for now, planning on being more active this year


#10 Offline mmcguffi - Posted March 10 2021 - 5:23 PM

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This is a great resource, thanks for putting it together!

 

Recently, a professor who studies Atta told me that my 7.5cm x 7.5cm plaster founding formicaria that I constructed were too big, and a smaller ~3 oz deli cup should be used, but offered no reason why. The setups have permanent water ports into the plaster like this paper outlines https://www.research...rmicinae_AttiniI would think that even though the formicaria are a bit larger, they should be basically equivalent to the smaller ones? I plan on raising the Atta polygynously in groups of 5, so at least some extra space is needed

 

Do you have any insights or opinions on this?



#11 Offline CheetoLord02 - Posted March 10 2021 - 5:49 PM

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This is a great resource, thanks for putting it together!

 

Recently, a professor who studies Atta told me that my 7.5cm x 7.5cm plaster founding formicaria that I constructed were too big, and a smaller ~3 oz deli cup should be used, but offered no reason why. The setups have permanent water ports into the plaster like this paper outlines https://www.research...rmicinae_AttiniI would think that even though the formicaria are a bit larger, they should be basically equivalent to the smaller ones? I plan on raising the Atta polygynously in groups of 5, so at least some extra space is needed

 

Do you have any insights or opinions on this?

With leafcutters "too large" is far less of an issue than too small. 5 Atta texana queens would not be able to fit in a 3oz deli cup, let alone found normally in one. Personally I'll be using 3.25oz cups for Atta mexicana, which are monognous. 7.5cm x 7.5cm is a fine sized nest. I upgrade my Atta to a 10x10x10cm nest almost immediately after founding and they do perfectly fine. If you're really concerned something like an 8oz deli cup would likely be fine, but personally I would recommend the larger containers which you already have prepared.


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#12 Offline aznphenom - Posted March 22 2021 - 8:54 AM

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Anything on how to make their set ups?


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Keeps: Atta TexanaOdontomachus haematodus, Crematogaster Sp., Prenolepis imparis, Camponotus pennsylvanicus, Camponotus chromaiodes, Tetra sp

 

Wants (Please reach out if you have them for sale if you’re in the US): Acromyrmex Sp., Atta Mexicana, Cephalotes Sp., Myrmecocystus Sp (Prefer Mexicanus), Odontomachus Sp. (Prefer Desertorum), Pachycondyla Sp., Pheidole Sp (Prefer Rhea. The bigger the better. Not the tiny bicarinata), Pogonomyrmex Sp., Pseudomyrmex Sp. (Prefer the cute yellow ones)

 


#13 Offline mmcguffi - Posted March 22 2021 - 10:55 AM

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Anything on how to make their set ups?

This paper outlines one method: https://www.research...rmicinae_Attini

 

If that's too wordy/jargon-y for you, they are essentially the same idea as this formicarium: https://antessential...tal mesh/cotton.

 

Essentially the fungus portion of the nest needs to have high humidity so a paster bottom is used in those examples, as the plaster can retain a decent amount of moisture. Those examples also have tubes inserted into the plaster so you can hydrate the plaster without opening the formicarium, though there are many different ways to hydrate the plaster (eg: https://www.formicul...021/?p=135187).It's also possible to forgo plaster setups entirely, though most hobbyist and scientists that I have seen use the plaster method. Typically there will be an outworld attached to the fungus chamber, as well as an other "outworld" where the ants can deposit their waste -- both of these chambers do not require plaster bottoms. As the colonies grow, you can connect more plaster chambers, or simply create a larger plaster chamber and transfer the fungus. The larger the fungus garden, the more stable the humidity becomes


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#14 Offline cap_backfire - Posted March 25 2021 - 10:49 AM

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Dude this is awesome.  I really want to get into leafcutters so have to find those sand banks or forest or whatever and scoop em up!   I'm fascinated by leafcutters now.   Fascinated!!! 


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#15 Offline Chickalo - Posted March 25 2021 - 11:12 AM

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I wish Trachy lived up here in Massachusetts D :<  anyways, nice job with it, now I just need to watch every video about Trachymyrmex I can find and sulk with my non-fungi grower New England ants


ヒッピティホピティ、私の財産から性交を取得します。


#16 Offline CheetoLord02 - Posted May 11 2021 - 10:56 PM

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UPDATED to include flight information for A. veriscolor, Atta mexicana, and Atta texana!


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#17 Offline aznphenom - Posted May 12 2021 - 3:04 AM

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No flight info for trachy?
Keeps: Atta TexanaOdontomachus haematodus, Crematogaster Sp., Prenolepis imparis, Camponotus pennsylvanicus, Camponotus chromaiodes, Tetra sp

 

Wants (Please reach out if you have them for sale if you’re in the US): Acromyrmex Sp., Atta Mexicana, Cephalotes Sp., Myrmecocystus Sp (Prefer Mexicanus), Odontomachus Sp. (Prefer Desertorum), Pachycondyla Sp., Pheidole Sp (Prefer Rhea. The bigger the better. Not the tiny bicarinata), Pogonomyrmex Sp., Pseudomyrmex Sp. (Prefer the cute yellow ones)

 


#18 Offline CheetoLord02 - Posted May 12 2021 - 8:36 AM

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I honestly haven't experienced any Trachymyrmex flights yet, so I can't exactly say when they fly. I believe T. septentrionalis fly in the afternoon in the summer, but past that I'm not really sure. I'd imagine Arizona's Trachymyrmex fly either at night or in the morning after a heavy rain in monsoon season.


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#19 Offline cap_backfire - Posted May 25 2021 - 7:01 AM

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This has been a really great resource for me, Cheeto.   Thanks so much for taking the time to post.   I just got a Trachy colony and they are FASCINATING.   For some reason they chonked a hole in the center of a leaf and not the edges... Weird.   but they seem to be doing well except for the poor little gal that can't figure out where to dump her dead sister.  just carries her around the upper-levels/ sticks.   
I'm keeping them with stick insects (3) and am wondering if I could add springtails?  I don't want the springtails to get in and gobble the fungus-that's my only concern.   Thoughts?  I imagine they deal with them in the wild but have no idea.  


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#20 Offline Mettcollsuss - Posted May 25 2021 - 7:08 AM

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but they seem to be doing well except for the poor little gal that can't figure out where to dump her dead sister.  just carries her around the upper-levels/ sticks.

My T. septentrionalis do the exact same thing. Whenever they have a dead worker, they just parade her corpse in circles around the outworld and can never find a spot to set it. I'm not sure what it's about. I've started using forceps to take the dead body away so that the carrier can go back to her normal duties.


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