Thursday, 3 February 2011

Honeypot Ants - Live food storage units

Image showing a honeypot ant
Honeypot Ant
(Click to enlarge)
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Hymenoptera
Family: Formicidae
Common Name(s): Honeypot ants, honey ants, repletes, plerergate, rotund

Today's post is about a strange-looking caste of ants known as honey ants. What is their role in the colony? Why are they so...fat? And are they full of... honey?

What are honeypot ants?
Honeypot ants are a special ant-class, occurring in certain species. As most of us now, ants are social insects that form colonies consisted of several castes, with each caste having a specialized role.

The queen lays eggs and is the mother of the colony. The few males are called "drones" and their role is to one day mate with the "princesses" born by the queen. However, the vast majority of the colony is comprised by sterile females. These ants become "workers", "soldiers" and other specialized groups, like honeypot ants.

The role of honey ants is quite simple. To get big, fat and juicy! They are the "storage units" of the colony, full of nutritional ingredients in liquid form. Workers bring the food and they gorge themselves with it. Overtime, their abdomens become inflated with the liquid substance and they look like small pots of honey, thus their common name. Their inflated abdomens commonly reach the size of a grape. This condition is called plerergate:
"A plerergate is a polymorph of an ant, also known as a replete or rotund, characterized by an enlarged abdominal area (the crop of the gullet) for the purpose of food storage. This occurs in honey ants. For example, the North American species Myrmecocystus mexicanus has select sterile workers act as plerergates or repletes during times of food scarcity. When the pleregates are fully engorged, they become immobile and hang from the ceilings of the underground nests. Other workers drain them of their liquid food stores to feed the rest of the colony." Definition by wikipedia 

Honey ants on a human hand
Honeypot Ants

Habitat and Species
Honey ants are primarily found in hot and dry areas throughout the world, where food and water becomes scarce for long periods of time. Many of them occur in extremely hot deserts whereas some reside in transitional habitats. Some of them can also be found in woodlands with cool but very dry climates.

As of 2014, scientists have recorded more than 30 species using this form preservation. These species belong to the following genuses:
  • Camponotus, of Australia 
  • Cataglyphis, of North Africa 
  • Leptomyrmex, of Melanesia 
  • Melophorus, of Australia 
  • Myrmecocystus, of North America 
  • Plagiolepis, of South Africa 
  • Prenolepis, of North America

Jump to 1:01 if you can't wait to see the honey ants

The life of a honey ant
As aforementioned, their role is to gorge themselves with food presented to them by workers. The food is stored in the abdomen, in the form of water, liquids and body fats. Individuals may occur throughout the whole nest, however they are typically found in the deepest parts of the nest, hanging upside down from the tunnels' ceilings.

There, they spend their whole life trapped due to their large abdominal size. They only take action when needed..And that is during tough periods, when there isn't enough food to sustain the colony. Depending on the species, they either sacrifice themselves and are consumed by other ants, or they simply spit out the stored ingredients. In the second case, the workers stroke the antennae of the honeypot ants, triggering them to regurgitate the stored liquid.

In some species of Erebomyrma, Oligomyrmex, Pheidologeton and Proformica, workers become honey ants for only brief periods of time, storing smaller amounts of food.

Honeypot ants (Myrmecocystus mimicus) at Oakland Zoo
Honeypot ants at Oakland Zoo
Species: Myrmecocystus mimicus

The feeding process
Honey pot ants are usually presented with flower nectar and other plant fluids that are rich in sugars. They also feed on liquids from insects, aphid honeydew, dead animals, and other sources.

But how are they fed? Workers leave the nest in search of nectar, insects, honeydew, plant secretions etc.

Once they find something useful they consume it and return back to the nest. Then, they pay a visit to their immobile friends and regurgitate part of their meal and feed them with it!

Honey ants (Myrmecocystus sp.) at Cincinnati Zoo hanging upside down
Honey ants (Myrmecocystus sp.) at Cincinnati Zoo
Credit: Greg Hume

Are they edible?
Many, if not all, honeypot ant species, like the Camponotus inflatus, are edible, no preparation required. Just grab the critter and bite the...honeypot! Supposedly, the liquid has a very sweet taste and is good source of sugars. Honey ants are considered a delicacy in many parts of the world. In Australia, they are an occasional part of the diet of several Aboriginal tribes, who regard them as a delicious dessert. What a treat!

Excerpt from a BBC documentary about honeypot ants. 
David Attenborough can't resist and takes a bite at 2:36

Other Interesting Facts about Honeypot Ants
- Honey ants were first documented in 1881, by the American naturalist, Henry C. McCook (1837 - 1911).
- Honeypot ants are extremely precious to the nest for its survival. It's no surprise that there have been reports of other ants attacking colonies to steal their honey!

References & Further Reading
- BADGER, G., & KORYTNYK, W. (1956). Examination of Honey in Australian Honey-ants Nature, 178 (4528), 320-321 DOI: 10.1038/178320a0
- Conway, J. (1986). The Biology of Honey Ants The American Biology Teacher, 48 (6), 335-343 DOI: 10.2307/4448321
- Chew, R. (1979). Mammalian Predation on Honey Ants, Myrmecocystus (Formicidae) The Southwestern Naturalist, 24 (4) DOI: 10.2307/3670526
- Wheeler, W. (1915). The Australian Honey-Ants of the Genus Leptomyrmex Mayr. Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 51 (5) DOI: 10.2307/20025576
- Spangler, H., & Taer III., S. (1970). Defensive Behavior of Honey Bees Toward Ants Psyche: A Journal of Entomology, 77 (2), 184-189 DOI: 10.1155/1970/49131
- Schultheiss, P., Schwarz, S., & Wystrach, A. (2010). Nest Relocation and Colony Founding in the Australian Desert Ant, Melophorus bagoti Lubbock (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) Psyche: A Journal of Entomology, 2010, 1-4 DOI: 10.1155/2010/435838
- Morgan, R. Biology, husbandry and display of the diurnal honey ant Myrmecocystus mendax Wheeler (Hymenoptera: Formicidae).


  1. Where do the Myrmecocystus spp live, underground like the australian ones in the video?

  2. well probably underground like all ants do :P

    1. probably ants live under the ground in a ant hole

  3. are honeypot ants poisinous?

  4. what does spp mean?

    1. Latin abbreviation for multiple species

    2. can you get the honey without eating the the ant that would ruin his nice life

  5. God is awesome the way He creates everything with a purpose and so perfectly!Praise Jesus!