Certain Ants are Used as Living Food Storage Vessels

Today I found out some ants are used as living food storage vessels by their colony.

While honey bees will collect and store their food in combs, certain species of ants take a different route, using the bodies of some of their fellow ants, often the larger bodied ants of the colony called “majors”, to store what they need. Worker ants bring the “honey” or “honeypot” ants things like nectar, water, body fluids and fats (from prey such as caterpillars and termites) to store in case of drought or other times where resources are scarce.  Depending on the size of the colony, there may even be thousands of these honeypot ants in a single nest, doing nothing but sitting there and waiting for their stored sustenance to be needed.

As the other worker ants bring the liquid foods to the honeypot ants, their gasters (rear portion of the ant) will swell larger and larger until they become so big they can’t move around.  This isn’t that big of a deal for them as they also tend to become so big that they wouldn’t be able to leave the nest anyways as the paths out are too small.  These honeypot worker ants can even swell to as large as a small grape.

In order to retrieve food from the honeypot ants, other worker ants will stroke the antennae of the living storage vessels.  When this happens, the honeypot ant will regurgitate a little of the sweet liquid it has stored in its abdomen for the worker to eat or distribute elsewhere, such as feeding the queen.

Given the fact that honeypot ants contain such a rich source of tasty liquids inside themselves, they tend to be sought out by predators, even humans.  As such, they usually are “stored” deep within the nest to protect them.  Nevertheless, Honey Badgers and other such predators will seek out these swollen ants and eat them when they find them.  Some Native American tribes, as well as Aborigines, were also known to regularly harvest honeypot ants, biting off the swollen abdomen for a sweet treat.

Most species of ants actually have the ability to do something similar to honeypot ants.  Specifically, they have two stomachs, one for their own use, and one for storing food for the colony’s use. This second stomach is capable of swelling a bit to hold liquids for transport back to the nest.  Once back, they can then regurgitate this liquid for other ants in the nest to consume.  With honeypot ants, their storage organ is simply capable of expanding to a much larger volume than what is possible in most other types of ants.

If you liked this article and the bonus ant facts below, you might also like:

Bonus Amazing Ant Facts:

  • Most adult ants do not have the ability to swallow non-liquid foods.  In order to get needed sustenance, they will squeeze solid foods in order to get the nutritional juices out of it and into their stomachs.
  • Some type of worker ants are designated as “soldier” ants.  These ants collect food like other worker ants, but they also are tasked with attacking enemy colonies and some species even steal enemy colony eggs, which they then take back to their own colony.  Once these enemy eggs hatch, the “foreign” ants are made into life-long slaves, tasked with specific jobs such as collecting food, building the anthill, taking care of other eggs and young ants, etc.  In the most extreme case, Amazon ants are actually unable to take care of themselves without slave ants.
  • Ants are able to tell when a foreign ant invades their nest thanks to the fact that each colony has a unique smell to it.  Foreigners smell differently and will quickly be attacked when their presence is discovered.  Ants don’t mess around when attacking either.  They almost always fight to the death.  Ants also use pheromones to be able to determine by scent what job “group” some worker ant belongs to at a given time in their life-cycle.
  • Certain species of ants also have suicide bomber ants.  When these suicide bomber ants encounter enemies, such as ants from another colony, they will literally explode, causing a chemical to cover the enemies around them.  This chemical is very sticky and when it dries will immobilize any enemy ants, eventually resulting in them dying.
  • The Forelius pusillus ant also has worker ants that will sacrifice themselves for the good of the colony, but this time in a slightly different manner than the exploding ants.  Every night, the nest of a colony needs sealed off in such a way that the nest will be undetectable from the outside, in order to protect it from predators.  As such, sick ants or ones who are older will apparently volunteer to perform the task of staying outside the nest at night.  Once all the rest of the ants are inside, the sacrificial ants will seal up the entrance and usually will end up dying from being left outside.  Even when researchers have collected these sacrificial ants and taken care of them, they usually die soon anyways, which is why it is thought that generally older or sick ants are chosen for this task.
  • Another type of interesting jobs certain ants have is as a gatekeeper.  The Cylindricus ant has special worker ants that flatten their heads into a disc-like shape.  These ants then use their heads to block the entrance to the nest.  If an ant wants in, they must use their antennae to identify themselves, at which point the gatekeeper will allow them to enter.
  • Another job some worker ants have is that of a janitor.  These ants will collect “garbage” and other such things that have accumulated within the nest, even dead ants, and they will take this stuff outside the nest and place it in a designated area for rubbish.
  • Cataulacus muticus worker ants respond to excess water in their nests, possibly from flooding, by drinking the water, then walking outside the nest and spitting it out.  They then repeat this process until the nest is sufficiently dried out.  Other types of ants respond to flooding by making rafts to float on.  This is thought to be how ants have managed to colonize pretty much every habitable island on the planet.
  • Another interesting ant fact is that, though they need oxygen, they have no lungs.  They end up getting their oxygen by absorbing it through tiny holes throughout their body, called spiracles.
  • Despite the fact that they need oxygen, some types of ants create underwater nests.  These ants breathe via trapping pockets of air and are fully capable of swimming around as needed.
  • If you’ve ever been curious how exactly ants find their way around and why they nearly always walk in a line over the same path as other ants in their colony, it’s because foraging worker ants leave pheromone trails that the other ants then follow to a food source and back home.  If for some reason a pheromone trail is lost or weak, similar to bees, some ants also have the ability to communicate with one another how to find an exact location in very complex and abstract ways.  Specifically, they’ll give a set of directions which varies in method from species to species.  The method of direction may include communicating landmarks, distances, and direction (with distance often being measured by number of steps, implying ants have the ability to count to an arbitrary number and hold that information in their memory).   Some types of ants also have the ability to detect the Earth’s magnetic fields to help in navigating and in giving direction.  Many also have the ability to use the Sun to navigate by, similar to bees.  They communicate these directions via a variety of methods, such as pheromones, gestures, and in some type of ants, even using noise produced by their mandibles, essentially quite literally talking to each other.  It should also be noted at this point that it’s estimated that there are around 10,000,000,000,000,000 ants in the world, with their biomass being about equal to the biomass of the human race and the number of brain cells in a given healthy colony is roughly equal to the amount in a human brain. (I for one welcome our new ant overlords).
  • Ants also use pheromones to mark out dangers and even to signal an alarm.  When the “alarm” pheromones are secreted, ants nearby will be attracted and will fanatically attack whatever thing caused one of the ants to trigger the alarm.  As more and more ants converge on the area, they’ll also all release the alarm pheromone, causing it to be picked up by ants further way.   Neighboring ants will sometimes use this system to cause ants from another colony to attack each other by releasing “propaganda alarm pheromones”.
  • Once an ant finds a good food source, they then return to the colony and try to convince other ants to stop whatever they’re doing and help them collect food from the food source they’ve found.  Depending on how convincing the ant that found the food is, other ants may or may not decide to stop what they’re doing and go help collect the food.  What’s particularly fascinating about this is that the ants seem to have the ability to communicate exactly how much food is available at the food source, which then seems to be factored in by the other ants, in terms of determining how many ants to divert to that food source, given all the other things there is to do at the time.
  • Due to their amazingly efficient worker distribution systems they use, Ants have been and are currently being studied in Computer Science and Mathematics in order to help us humans develop more efficient scheduling algorithms, as well as algorithms to search an area or perform a task as efficiently as possible given the number of available workers.  These types of scheduling problems are incredibly difficult to solve in a reasonable amount of time, even for modern day super computers.  As such, algorithms that do this tend to be looking more for the “best guess”, rather than optimal efficiency.  Given that there is an amazing amount of money in creating more efficient systems (for instance, companies like UPS, Fedex, Airlines, etc. particularly can save millions of dollars with just a very tiny increase in scheduling efficiency, and there are few businesses out there that wouldn’t benefit from better efficiency algorithms), the amazingly adept ants are studied in terms of how they decide as a group what is the most efficient way to distribute workers given the current state of the environment.
  • One such study done by researchers was to see how the ants would handle solving a version of the Towers of Hanoi math puzzle.  The puzzle normally has you move disks from one rod to the next, sorting the disks in a specific way.  The puzzle was adapted for the ants such that they were searching for shortest paths.  In the beginning, the ants would then have 32,768 possible paths to choose from, with only two paths presenting the optimal solution.  The researchers also tried to throw the ants off by periodically adapting the puzzle, offering them new paths.  The ants managed to solve this puzzle in under an hour.  Once they did, researchers then blocked the path to see how the ants would react.  At first the ants chose to simply modify the original optimal path to get around the obstacle.  However, within an hour, they managed to discover the new optimal route and stopped using the old optimal route. The ant’s adaptability to the current state of the environment makes these algorithms particularly useful over many other such existing algorithms.  To date, algorithms developed based on ant colony behavior have been used in such practical applications such as vehicle routing and protein folding problems.
  • Some ants can fly.  Specifically, most queen ants and male ants develop wings which they use to fly off and find a good place to start a new colony.  The males start by flying until they find a suitable spot for mating, often with many converging on the same spot.  The females then sniff out the male’s pheromones and then proceed to mate with one or more of the male ants (depending on the species).  Once that’s done, the females store the sperm in a special organ inside themselves to be used later for fertilizing all the eggs they will produce in their lifetime.  They then search out a good location to start a new colony.  Once they’ve found a good spot, their wings fall off and they start laying eggs and building the colony.  In some multi-queen species, once a colony gets large enough, one of the queens may also propagate the species by taking workers and leaving the current colony to begin a new one elsewhere.
  • Unlike Honey bees which will replace a queen, when necessary, many types of ants won’t and once the queen dies, the colony typically will die off shortly thereafter (whenever all the existing ants die off) as no new ants will be born.  However, some types of ants keep multiple queens, so this isn’t a problem for them.  Further, there are also ant colonies called “gamergates” that don’t have any queens and the workers themselves are capable of reproducing.  Ants that will produce a new queen know to do so when the current queen stops producing a certain pheromone.
  • Unlike what the name implies, the queen ant is not in charge of the colony.  In fact, she mostly just sits around producing fertilized eggs.  The workers themselves decide everything, even where to go if they need to find a new location for a nest.  Once they decide, they simply carry the queen to the new location.
  • In some species of ants, the male is not specifically needed as the females are capable of reproducing asexually via unfertilized eggs.  This is something only about 1500 species on the entire planet are known to be capable of.
  • Worker ants tend to have their jobs assigned based on age, similar to Honey bees.  In the beginning of its adulthood, worker ants usually help take care of the queen and young ants.  After a few days, they are given the job of helping to dig and maintain the nest.  As they age, then then graduate to soldiering and foraging tasks, where many end up being killed by predators.
  • Depending on the species, queen ants can live as much as 30 years, while worker ants generally are capable of living anywhere from a couple months to a few years.  The shortest lived (at least in terms of natural death) is the males who usually only live for a few weeks, dying shortly after mating.
  • Ants are capable of lifting as much as 20-25 times their body weight.  They are also extremely fast, relative to their body size.  For reference, if a human had ant-like capabilities in terms of speed and strength, we’d be able to run about 40-50 mph while carrying both a Honda Civic and a Toyota Yaris over our heads and would be able to do this over long distances without getting winded.  Eat your heart out Spider-Man.
  • Currently it is estimated that there are around 20,000 different species of ants in the world, with about 13,000 of those having been documented to date.
  • Carpenter ants can have their minds taken over by a certain type of parasitic fungus (ophiocordyceps unliateralis).  The fungus works by first infiltrating the ant’s body.  It then releases chemicals inside the ant that will eventually cause it to wander off from the colony searching for something to perch under that is approximately 25 centimeters from the ground and is at a favorable angle to the sun.  Once it’s found such a perch, the ant will lock its mandibles onto the object (usually a leaf or twig).  It will soon die and the fungus will grow from its head and send off spores to infect other ants.  If the ant does this close enough to its home, this can soon wipe out the entire colony.  As such, when an ant is discovered to be infected, worker ants will carry that ant off far away from the colony in order to avoid the rest of the colony becoming infected.
  • There are many different varieties of this type of fungus that specializes in infecting numerous types of insects in this same manor, with each type of fungus specialized to a specific type of insect.
  • Ciclosporin, which is one of the chemicals produce by these types of fungi is used in modern medicine.  It has the effect of inhibiting our immune system’s ability to reject new tissues.  As such, it’s often used when someone has an organ transplant.
  • With all these amazing things ants can do, individual ants have only about 250,000 brain cells.   For reference, humans have between 80-120 billion.  It should be noted, though, that ants function more like parts of a whole, rather than individual entities.  As such, the ant colony is capable of solving problems too complex for any individual ant to solve on their own.
  • The most painful sting of any insect is generally considered to be given by the Bullet ant (Paraponera).  This claim is based on the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, which lists the Bullet ant sting at the top.  While painful, its sting is usually not fatal to humans, unlike the stings of certain other ants, such as Jack jumper ants.  The name of this ant derives from the fact that being stung by one is said to be as painful as being shot by a bullet, though others who’ve experienced it describe it as similar to holding your hand in a fire, only with the nerve endings continuing to work fine, rather than being burned off in the case of a literal fire.  The pain also usually lasts for about 24 hours or so.
  • The Brazilian Satere-Mawe will sedate hundreds of Bullet ants and then weave them into gloves with the stingers pointing inward.  Young boys then will stick their hands into the gloves and be stung by the ants continually for about 10 minutes (if they can take it and don’t remove their hands before).  This initiation rite is repeated about 20 times as the boy grows into a man.
  • Odontomachus ants have jaws that can close faster than any known appendage in the world, at a rate of around 80-150 mph, or about 130 microseconds.  They use this ability in a variety of ways, such as throwing any intruder away from themselves or even catapulting themselves away from some predator.  The mandibles are opened as wide as they can and then locked into position.  The trigger to cause them to snap shut is simply little hairs that grow on the inside of the mandibles.
  • The mandibles of other large ants are also sometimes used in third world medicine.  Specifically, certain types of ants are placed on a wound that is pulled together.  The ant then bites down on the edge of the wound held shut and locks its mandibles on it, at which point the ant’s body is severed from its head and the mandibles remain locked on the wound.  With enough of these in a row, it makes for an effective suture.
  • Certain types of ants have been observed to interactively teach one another skills.  For instance, the Temnothorax albipennis ants have been observed to have experienced foragers bring new foragers along with them while they forage, showing them the ropes.
  • Army ants and Driver ants both are capable of making temporary nests out of their own bodies, with each ant holding onto other ants around it.
  • Certain types of caterpillars are capable of excreting pheromones such that the ants think that the caterpillar is an ant larva of the colony.  As such, it takes the caterpillar into the nest and places it with the other larvae.  Once there, the caterpillar eats the actual larvae.
  • Foraging ants are known to travel as much as 1000 ft. from their nest.
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  • Oh ants are so dumb they need their colony to solve problems for them?

    Well, with 80 billion brain cells, the average person is still entirely dependent on the human colony to provide things like food, soldiers, and basic utilities like water and electricity.

    You may have autonomy over your own reproduction, but we are just as much the cogs in a machine.

    It is audacious pride that makes you mock the intelligence of a creature dependent on its society. The truth is, a human without their culture propping them up would be just as helpless as an Amazonian ant without its slaves.