Earth Notes: Honeypot Ants

Aug 30, 2017

Feast or famine is the watchword in the Colorado Plateau’s unpredictable climate. To survive lean times, honeypot ants, common in the region, have devised a unique strategy.  

Honeypot ant
Credit Gary Alpert

When monsoon rains bypass our arid region and liquid food sources grow scarce, ants are in danger of extreme starvation. So to weather times of want, it’s crucial they stock up on food in times of plenty. Some ants store seeds, others hoard dead insects, while honeypot ants cache copious quantities of liquid sugars in their bellies.

Honeypot ants are thin and hungry when they first emerge from their cocoons, and worker ants return to the nest to feed them surplus food. The ants fed on this “fast food” become engorged, and grow so rotund they can barely move. They’re transformed into living storage casks the size of grapes, hanging from the ceiling of the underground galleries and spending almost no energy on themselves.  

The process is reversed during periods of food shortage. Starving worker ants then approach the honeypots for a handout. They oblige by regurgitating their “honey” into the mouths of thousands of famished workers, thus assuring survival of the whole colony.

Honeypot ants are prey for horned lizards, badgers, coyotes and various other animals. Native people have been known to consume this sweet source of nutrition too.