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WATCH: Honeypot Ants Turn Their Biggest Sisters into Jugs of Nectar

April 30, 2022

Deep in their underground nests, honeypot ants stuff members of their own colony until they look like golden water balloons. Drop by drop, worker ants deliver nectar and other liquid food into their largest sisters’ mouths. When food is scarce in the desert, the colony will feed from these living storage tanks, known as repletes.

Workers venture out of their nest at dusk and collect nectar from plants, as well as other sweet liquids they slurp from the backsides of tiny animals like aphids. And they gather dead insects, such as other ants. Some of the fat and protein they extract from the insects will end up inside the repletes.

Workers carry the nectar and other liquids back to the nest inside their own abdomens. Then they transfer it, mouth to mouth, to the ants they’re turning into repletes. The liquid flows into a pouch in the replete’s abdomen called the crop.

This is the part of the ant that swells into a storage tank. The nutritious liquid stays inside the crop because four valves prevent most of it from flowing into the ant’s stomach, where it would be digested.

Where are honeypot ants found?

Honeypot ants – also known as honey ants – are found in arid regions of North America, Australia and Africa.

Are honey ants edible?

Yes. People eat them in Mexico, where they’re called hormigas mieleras, and in Australia.

What do honey ants taste like when you eat them?

One way to eat a replete is to hold it by the torso and bite off its abdomen so that it pops open inside your mouth. “In my opinion, they taste like molasses,” says entomologist John Conway, who has studied Myrmecocystus mexicanus honeypot ants in Colorado.

When they’re about to be eaten, the ants squirt out a bit of formic acid as a defense mechanism. The acid can cause a very light burning sensation, says Deep Look producer Gabriela Quirós, who was filmed eating a replete for this episode.

Why do honeypot ants hang from the ceiling?

Conway says the air circulating around repletes as they hang from the top of the nest might help them avoid fungal infections. That said, repletes can move around and they sometimes crawl on the floor of the nest.

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