What Ants Really Do With Food – A Tale of Honeypots And Regurgitation

by | Ants, Insects

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If you’ve seen ants carrying food out of your house or across your yard, you might be wondering what they do with all the food they collect. I mean, they must have a huge chamber full of food somewhere just waiting to be eaten.

I did some digging and it turns out that:

Scout ants go to look for food. When they find it, they call worker ants from the nest to collect the food. The workers swallow liquids and store it in their social stomach, to share it with other adult ants in the nest. The workers also carry solid foods back to the nest to feed to young larvae.

The strange thing is that most ants don’t store food at all, at least not how you would imagine they do. But how do they stop the food from going rotten and what about the species that do store food? Let’s start by understanding what ants do with all the liquids and solids they find out on their scouting trips.

Ants swallow the liquids they find

Photo of black ant with labels to both its stomachs

Adult ants have very small waists, and they cannot swallow or process solid food.

Most ants have two stomachs: a personal stomach and a social stomach. The personal stomach feeds the ant itself. The social stomach, or crop, stores liquids that the ant can pass on to other ants through regurgitation (vomit) and mouth to mouth contact, or be passed from one ant’s anus to another ant’s mouth.

Ants eat many different foods and usually have their favorites depending on what type of ant they are. But most ant colonies need both sugars and proteins.

Proteins are especially important for the larvae to grow into adult ants. The larvae eat mostly protein solids, which we’ll talk about in the next section.

Sugars are more important to adult ants as they need energy to perform their daily tasks. These ants usually get their sugars from liquids, such as honeydew, nectar, soft drinks, fruit juice, or the moisture released from chewing food.

Adults also get liquids and some protein from larvae.

The larvae are able to eat solid food and predigest it. They will often regurgitate it back into their mouth and pass this nutritious liquid on to adult ants through mouth-to-mouth contact. The ants will then eat some with their personal stomach if they’re hungry and keep the rest in their social stomach, to pass on to other ants in the nest.

It’s this sharing of liquids that keeps every adult in the nest (including the queen or queens) well fed, or pretty much equally hungry. It’s also a way for ants to talk to each other by sharing chemical messages with each other.

This process of sharing liquids between adults and larvae is why ant baits like these work so well – the workers collect the poison in the bait because it tastes sugary and sweet. The worker ants drink the poison and take it back to their nest, to pass it on to the other ants. Over time, the poison is passed from ant to ant, and the ants die.

Ants feed solid foods to their young

Worker ants collect solid foods and take the food back to the nest, to feed it to the larvae. Larvae grow and develop best on a diet that’s rich with proteins and fats, like dead insects.

The larvae are able to chew and swallow solid foods, unlike the older ants. But some ant species do have workers with large jaws, and they are strong enough to crush and chew hard foods like seeds into smaller pieces.

The following video has no sound but shows fire ants transferring food between themselves and the larvae:

Where ants store food

Ants store food they collect in their stomachs – most ants do not store any food in their nest. A colony sends out scouts to find food every day or when food is needed, at least in the warmer months. Workers bring food back that the scouts find, and they all start sharing the food right away.

Ants don’t need to store food: They send out scouts to find food when they need to. And because ants are opportunistic omnivores, and will eat just about anything, they usually find something tasty to eat.

When the weather cools down, ants go deep into the soil or into their nest, where the temperature stays fairly constant.

Then they slow down their metabolism (the rate at which they burn calories), become very relaxed and lazy, and they won’t eat or drink again until spring comes.

This low level of activity means that the ants can get by on the energy they stored in their body after eating a lot of carbohydrate-rich sugary foods in late summer.

It’s also one of the reasons why you don’t see ants in your house or yard in winter – here are the four reasons why ants do come into your house.

Ants that do store food

As with most species, there are always exceptions to the rule. Even though most ants don’t store food, there are some that do. And many have a unique way of doing this.

Here are some of the most common types of ants that store food and how they do it.

Ants with storage chambers

When thinking about ants storing food, you probably imagine big chambers branching off tunnels in an ant’s nest. Of course, these chambers are where the ants place all the food they collect.

Well, some ants do have these chambers:

Harvester ants collect seeds, then place the excess in chambers in their nest called granaries.

Ants with honeypots

Photo of honeypot storage ants hanging from the roof with bellies full of liquid
Source: With thanks to Greg Hume at en.wikipedia

In an ant colony, each worker has a job to do.

In the case of honeypot ants, some workers are assigned to act as living food storage containers and dispensers. Let’s call them “storage ants”.

Like other ants, storage ants have a social stomach. But their social stomach can hold a lot more liquid in it – and it does.

Storage ants never leave the nest. They hang from the roof deep inside the nest, where predators like honey badgers can’t reach them.

Other worker ants bring liquids back to the nest, such as honeydew or body fluids from dead insects. Adult ants pass these liquids between each other and over to the storage ants through mouth-to-mouth contact.

The rear ends of the storage ants expand with all this liquid inside, sometimes to a point where the ants can’t move, which is why they hang from the roof rather than rolling around on the floor.

The ants store the liquid in their bellies until it is needed. To get liquid out of a storage ant, a worker ant strokes the storage ant with its antennae. This makes the storage ant bring up some of the liquid into its mouth, to pass it on to the worker ant.

Ants with farms

Photo of leafcutter ants taking leaf pieces home to feed to the fungus

Some ants are farmers and their farm becomes a type of food storage. These ants do leave their nest to collect food, only to feed it to something else.

Worker leafcutter ants spend their days cutting off small pieces of plant leaves. They take this food back to the nest and chew the plant material into pulp, releasing plant sap in the process.

They feed the pulp to the fungus growing in their fungus farm.

They then feed the fungus to their larvae, while the adults live off the liquid sap.

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MONIQUE

Monique loves gardening and spending time in her backyard, where she grows flowers, succulents, herbs, fruits, and vegetables.

Monique spends a lot of time researching how to protect her backyard from harmful pests and trying to attract beneficial insects and animals.

She shares everything that she learns and tests here at Backyard Pests.

 

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