Research: Leaf-cutting ants don't harvest coffee leaves in shade farms

by JulieCraves on February 3, 2007

Varon, E. H., S. D. Eigenbrode, N. A. Bosque-Perez, and L. Hilje. 2007. Effect of farm diversity on harvesting of coffee leaves by the leaf-cutting ant Atta cephalotes. Agriculture and Forest Entomology 9:47-55. Leaf-cutting ants, which are common in the tropics, cut pieces of live leaves and carry them to underground burrows where they are used to raise a fungus, which is the food of the ants.

The types of leaves these ants harvested were studied on Costa Rican coffee farms which varied in the diversity of tree species present.  In sun coffee monocultures, the proportion of coffee leaves harvested was highest, at 40% of total biomass.  It was under 1% in farms with complex shade, and the ants preferred shade tree species over coffee when given the choice in trials.

Leaf-cutting ants can consume 12 to 17% of leaf production in an area,and can defoliate coffee plants if there are not preferred alternatives. Damage to coffee plants by these ants is minimized by the availability of a diversity of shade trees.

Photo of Atta cephalotes by Scott Bauer. USDA Agricultural Research Service.

Posted in Research on coffee growing

Sanford Eigenbrode February 15, 2007 at 8:24 pm

Thanks to Coffee and Conservation for picking up on our publication. If there are questions about it, please feel free to contact me (

We are seeking funding to follow up on this work. Specifically, what plants in the diversified coffee systems do the best job of protecting the coffee? What complementary cultural practices can be used to enhance the effect? How does diversification affect the actual density of ant nests?

If the readership is aware of potential donors interested in supportin this type of work, please contact me for more information.

Sanford Eigenbrode

BirdBarista February 16, 2007 at 7:01 am

Dr. Eigenbrode: Good luck with your funding quest, something I can absolutely relate to in my own work. Keep me updated, especially if publication occurs in a more obscure journal. I have access to many, but don't catch everything.

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