The Gardening Ants


An extraordinary example of the complex behaviour of insects comes from the Amazon Jungle in Peru.8 Local Indians have given the name ‘devil’s gardens’ to certain areas of the forest where only a single species of tree grows. They attribute the gardens to an evil spirit known as ‘Chuyathaqi’.A scientific study of the gardens focused on two possible explanations: either that the tree, Duroia hirsuta, itself inhibits the growth of other species, or that the gardens are the work of the species of ant, Myrmelachista schumanni, that lives on their trunks. To investigate, the researchers planted cedar saplings  in and around the gardens.


Duroia hirsuta trees in blood.


They found that they were rapidly attacked by the ants, which injected the leaves with formic acid, so that they began to die within twenty-four hours. Formic acid  is produced by many ant species (its name coming from the Latin word for ant, formica) but is normally used as a chemical defence mechanism. This is the first example of its use on behalf of a host plant species. By killing other plants, the ants provide themselves with many long-lasting nest sites. The largest garden the scientists found was over 1,300 square metres, containing 328 trees, and was thought to be around 800 years old. We are forced to marvel at the collective wisdom displayed by these tiny creatures in cultivating their own species of tree by destroying any competing species. Here is a truly amazing example of the behaviour described long ago by Solomon, himself an accomplished naturalist (1 Kgs. 4:33): “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways and be wise: which having no guide, overseer, or ruler, provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest” (Prov. 6:6-8).

Wherever we look in the natural world we find such things  to astonish and delight us, so that with the psalmist we can once again exclaim, “O LORD,  how manifold are Thy works! In wisdom hast Thou made them all: the earth is full of Thy riches” (104:24).



“Devilish ants control the garden”, BBC On-line News, Science section, 21 Sept. 2005,