Introduction: Leaf Cutter Ant Poetry

About: I want computers to be wilder. Running a Jungle makerspace in Panama.…

Send a sweetie a nice valentine carried by a leaf-cutter ant! Or maybe you want a new way to generate poetry? Perhaps you just want to play with ants!

I started this project over five years ago as an art-science exploration. On the more technological side, I wanted to see how I could get ants to voluntarily carrying around something large and man-made (which could eventually be some QR codes, or sensors, - some ant scientists i worked with had ants carry strain gauges!). On the artistic side, I wanted to play with other techniques of re-arranging words, and letting a natural creatures provide the selection algorithm.

It's quite fun! and just this past Valentine's day, I took Valentine's day commissions to help fund a conference in August all about Art-Science-Technology projects ( You can see lots more examples on my youtube account, or our instagram - @digital.naturalism.labs

I wanted to share it so anyone can learn fun ways to send messages through ants!

By the way there is a kind of weird secret to having the ants carry you messages, first you have to dip the papers in pee!

Step 1: First Attempts - Pee Theory

Before we figured out to use pee, I had tried all kinds of other things.

They were interested in any types of paper I could give them, and from talking to different biologists, they suggested the fake "leaves" needed to be scented with something attractive or leaf-like. I tried bating it with sugar water, salt water, different smelly oils, rubbing smushed up leaves on it, but nothing was really working!

During the first hiking hack in panama, though, ( ) we did notice that the ants would swarm wherever we would pee. So i tried some pee on a piece of paper, and voila! it worked! lots of other people have figured out this fun technique too, like Phil Torres and them i think posted some fun videos of leaf cutters carrying words around too using Pee!

Step 2: Materials: Paper, Printer, Pee

To set up your own leaf cutter poetry generator, you just need:

  • A printer inkjet/laser
  • Scissors
  • Small storage box (preferably with multiple compartments
  • Jar with a lid
  • Human Urine

For the printer, I think a laser printer MIGHT work better, as the ink might not bleed as much when you get it wet with pee. I have only had inkjets on hand though!

Step 3: Setting Up Your Text

Now the ants aren't the most obedient actors to work with, so you need to do lots of preparation for them.

For example, you don't know how they will carry the text, so you should make it printed double sided.

The easiest way to do this is to

  • make a new line on your page for each word
  • center the text within the page


Otherwise you will need to duplicate everything on about the same distance from the other edge of the page, and you will have two copies.


When making your text, remember that at some point it will have to get a little wet with pee. I tested out a bunch of different colors and patterns, and have found it best to stick to just black ink. Other colors can work too, but sometimes they bleed and make your text or image a blurry mess.


A good rule of thumb is to keep your text less than 1.5cmx1.5cm in size. Too big and the ants won't be able to carry it well. Too small and they will ignore it.

After you print your paper, just cut out the pieces and put them in a little box. A small tin, or small tackle box works super good for this!

Step 4: Get Some Pee Ready!

Pee into your jar.

In my mental model of what is going on here, the ants are attracted to something in the pee other than water, so possibly more yellow pee (more stuff, less water) is desirable?

This is where you want to make sure your jar has a lid! You don't want to go hiking around the jungle and accidentally spill a bunch of your own pee on you (been there!). Also the lid will come in handy for dipping paper words!

Step 5: Action!

Find a nice busy leaf-cutter highway. Maybe figure out a way to make yourself comfortable, you are going to be there a while! The ants will not be as busy if it is super hot, or if it has just rained. I have found my best times to be before or after 12-2pm.

  1. First pour a little urine into the shallow lid of your jar.
  2. take a word from your box and give it a very slight dip into the pee.
  3. set it in a busy part of their highway

They don't seem interested in carrying the words until the pee has dried. So generally you will have to wait like 15 minutes. Just when you think they will never be interested in that word for some reason, boom! suddenly they grab it and run off with it!

If you want to catch the action, have a camera with a macro lens, or a phone that has decent close-up capabilities! Remember that the ants move pretty fast, so maybe film them in at least 60FPS so you can slow it down later if you need to!

Step 6: Rejected Words

One of my favorite parts of doing this is trying to figure out what is triggering the behaviors. If you put down a pile of words, the ants will be super eager about getting some right back to their nest fungus. Other words the ants will be blase about, and then some words they JUST HATE! Why? what's the problem!?? Silly ants!

Step 7: Troubleshooting!

This is not an exact science by any means! You will often have to get your awesome ant actors to do many takes!

If your goal is to film the ants, sometimes they hold the paper the wrong way, or get stuck under a leaf. It's really tricky if you want to get multiple words moving along at the same time, but it is doable with lots of patience.

Step 8: More Examples!

Here's just a bunch more examples of what the ants have carried!

here at this playlist:

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