There are a million ants for every person on earth. That’s a lot of little mouths to feed.
Ants come from an estimated 22,000 species spread everywhere around the world excluding — somewhat ironically — Antarctica, as well as a select few remote islands. Hailing from the order Hymenoptera, which also includes wasps and bees, ants have been around for over a hundred million years.
Ants have elbowed (bent) antennae and three distinct body segments: head, thorax (properly called the mesosoma), and abdomen (technically gaster). Connecting the mesosoma — from which protrudes the ant’s legs and wings — to the gaster — containing the ant’s glands, stomach, and rectum — is a thin, flexible waist called a petiole. This little segment is unique to insects of the order Hymenoptera, and makes it easy to distinguish ants from other straight-bodied insects like termites.
Ants arrange themselves in colonies of thousands or even millions of individual insects, split up into castes of queens (usually a single fertile female), drones (short-lived fertile males), and soldiers, workers, and specialized labourers who do all the heavy lifting (and all of whom are sterile females). These ants work together so well that the colony as a whole is sometimes described as a single superorganism.
Ant Eating Habits
Collecting food is a job for worker ants, which are the ones who bother you on a picnic. These ants use chemical trails to lead one another to food sources, and they use pincer-like appendages called mandibles to collect the food and bring it back to the nest for sharing. What’s more, ants have a second “social stomach” — called a crop — in which they store extra grub. Some species even have a special pocket in their mouth, called an infrabuccal chamber, to hold even more. Ants really love sharing food.
Ants are omnivorous, meaning they’ll eat plants and animals both. They’re not picky about how they obtain this food, either: foraging, scavenging, predation, trophallaxis (that means sharing with a buddy via regurgitation) — a meal’s a meal. Though each species has its own dietary preference, in general ants crave seeds, fungus, nectar, and other insects — living or dead.
What Do Ants Eat Outside?
With their eating habits, ants do an excellent job of tending the ecosystem: they break down organic matter like dead animals and insects, enrich the topsoil, disperse plant seeds, prey on pests like termites, give baths to birds, and even pollinate the occasional flower.
In addition, many ants also farm other insect species, namely aphids, mealybugs, and other hemipterans. These insects secrete a sugary substance called honeydew (sometimes on command, when tapped with an ant’s antennae), and this is an ant’s favorite food. They love honeydew so much that ant colonies will tend to entire flocks of aphids, protect them from predators, and even shepherd them when migrating to new nests.
What Do Ants Eat Inside?
If ants find their way into your home, it could be because they’re hungry. They might munch on some of your potted plants, or any insect husks you have lying around, but the bounty in your kitchen is usually the real draw. Here you can find ants feasting on crumbs, licking up spills, or rummaging through your trash can like tiny raccoons. Ants have no reservations about raiding your cupboards or pantry, either, so make sure to keep items like cereal boxes and sugar bowls tightly sealed (assuming you don’t want to share).
If you have an indoor ant problem, consider sprinkling some Diatomaceous Earth around your kitchen — this safe and natural mineral will kill them in a matter of days.
Specific Ant Types and What They Eat
Leafcutters are a group of 47 different species of ant that, true to their name, spend a lot of time chewing leaves (as well as grasses and other vegetation). These ants, endemic from South America all the way up to the southern United States, can process and carry up to twenty times their body weight in leafy matter. Their sharp mandibles can also slice through human skin, so be careful wearing camo around them.
The ants do not, however, eat the leaves they cut down. In fact they farm this vegetation only as nutrition for their real food source: fungus. Leafcutter ants cultivate fungal gardens within their nests and feed — exclusively — on special swellings called gongylidia, which don’t exist anywhere else in nature. Leafcutters make such good gardeners that they read chemical signals from the fungus to determine which plant matter it prefers, and which types of leaf are toxic to it. They adjust their foraging habits accordingly.
Carpenter ants are so called because they build their homes with wood, which is a quaint way to say they carve nests deep into trees, fallen logs, or the wood in your home. They prefer moist, dead wood, into which they hollow out tunnels that are charmingly called galleries.
As with leafcutter ants, the name of this ant does not relate to its diet. Carpenter ants chew through wood to build their nests, but cannot consume it: instead, they leave the nibbled sawdust in piles outside the colony.
Rather than wood, carpenter ants have a fairly standard diet that includes dead insects, sap and nectar, and honeydew produced by tended aphids. These big black ants will also be more than happy to feast on sugary foods they find in your house, like honey, syrup, or even meat.
The best introduction to the army ant’s diet is this video from National Geographic, or really just its title: “World’s Deadliest: Army Ants Eat Everything.”
Army ants can mean any of over 200 species that are known for foraging in giant, aggressive groups called raids. The soldiers on these raids — these are all scientific terms — have terrifyingly large mandibles that, as National Geographic puts it, “ravages everyone in their path.” That’s everyone, not everything — army ants love to take down live prey like insects, spiders, reptiles, and small mammals. To do this, they gang up by the thousands and bite, sting, and slash their prey apart. Together, they drag the pieces back to their nest, which is not a traditional mound of dirt but rather a giant roving ball of ants called a bivouac. Again, this is the scientific term.
One final note: army ants are almost entirely blind. Like the T. Rex from Jurassic Park, they detect their prey by movement, so playing dead is the best defense. Luckily, unlike the T. Rex from Jurassic Park, army ants do not generally attack humans.
Black House Ants
Black house ants are exactly what they sound like: shiny black nuisances who like to scavenge in kitchens and trash cans. They’re looking for sugary food and sometimes meats, fats, and oils. They also won’t turn their nose up at dog feces, so they have the nasty habit of spreading around bacteria in addition to stealing your food.
Red Imported Fire Ants
Red imported fire ants are a particularly insidious pest known for their aggression and painful stings (the ‘fire’ in their name refers to the burning sensation you’ll feel if they get you). When a bunch of fire ants work together, their stings are powerful enough to kill small animals like rabbits, rodents, and calves. They’re then happy to consume these creatures’ flesh, and indeed any other carrion that they stumble across while scavenging. Fire ants also enjoy the taste of lizards, snakes, young birds like quail and prairie chickens, and, you guessed it, crocodiles.
Not that their taste for meat is all-consuming. Like most omnivorous ants, fire ants go after what they can get: seeds, honeydew produced by aphids, plants like corn and okra, and fellow invertebrates like ticks, spiders, and scorpions.
“Flying ants” is a generic term for any ant in its mating stage, which is when it has wings. This only applies to potential queens and their male drones — worker ants are all sterile females who never have wings. Flying ants are also rarely a long-term problem, as they either die shortly after mating (if they’re male) or else lose their wings and become queens (if they’re female and lucky).
Though the diets of flying ants are no different than their wingless counterparts, these insects can easily be confused with flying termites — and since termites can do real damage by eating the wood in your home, it’s important to know the difference. Like all ants, flying ants have bent antennae and a pinched waist (the petiole). Termites, on the other hand, have straight antennae and straight waists. Termites also have two pairs of wings that are the same length, whereas ants’ wing pairs differ in size.