Background Info

The big, bloated bellies of honey ants like these serve as “living larders” for their entire colony. Too big to move, specialized honey ants called repletes hang from the roofs of nests dug deep in the cool earth. In the dry season, these ants are “drained” to provide nourishment for the rest of the colony. 
 
Honey ants are common in deserts and other arid climates around the world. This species, Myrmecocystus mexicanus, is indigenous to the southern United States and Mexico. Other species of honey ants can be found in southern Africa and throughout Australia.
 
Only some honey ants become “living larders.” They are part of the “worker” caste of honey ants. Other castes include soldiers, who protect the colony from predators; princesses and drones, who mate to form new colonies; and the queen—usually the mother of all other ants in the colony.
 
During the rainy season, when food is abundant, other worker ants feed repletes. Honey ants’ main source of food is sweet nectar gathered from desert flowers. Sometimes, workers will feed repletes liquids from insects killed by the colony (body fat from wasps or other ants, for example). Repletes are fed these liquids mouth-to-mouth, drop by drop. 
 
During a drought or dry season, nutrients become more scarce. Fewer flowers bloom, and fewer insects approach the colony. Honey ants turn to their living larders, now swollen to the size of grapes.
 
When the colony needs the nutrient-rich liquids, a worker ant will stroke a replete’s antennae. This signals the replete to regurgitate the liquid. A worker can eat the liquid itself, or carry it to another member of the colony.
 
Instructional Ideas
 
Consult National Geography Standard 10.1 (8th grade): The characteristics, distribution, and complexity of Earth's cultural mosaics. There are many different cultures, each with its own distinctive characteristics. 
  • Discuss how societies define culture, such as the development of language, history, and spirituality. Both questions in the “Questions” tab explore how and why the honey ant is a part of some Aboriginal Australian cultures.

Questions

1. 

The honey ant is a major character in the dreamings of some Aboriginal Australian cultures. Dreamings are creation myths, or traditional stories of how people or places were created. What characteristics of honey ants might make them good symbols for the creation of underground reservoirs or intermittent springs?

Show Answer

Honey ants are able to store liquid beneath the seemingly barren ground, just like a reservoir

2. 

What characteristics of honey ant colonies might make them good symbols for a desert’s human communities?

Show Answer

Honey ant colonies have successfully adapted to the harsh desert climate. Human characteristics can easily be attributed to the colony: they work together; create a “sweet” cool space where many different members perform different duties; and can function in both wet and dry seasons. 

Fast Facts

  • Many insects store sweet liquid for later use. Honeybees, for instance, store liquid in their combs. Honey ants, however, are the only insects to store the liquid in their own bodies.
  • Honey ants are a sweet treat! Their bodies are bite-sized balloons of sugary syrup that serve as delightful delicacies for cultures indigenous to arid climates, such as Aboriginal Australians. Western naturalists, such as filmmaker David Attenborough and “The Bug Chef” David George Gordon, also attest to their “marvelously sweet” flavor.
  • The dark, rectangular patches on the belly of a replete are actually the hard exoskeleton plates that normally protect the ant’s abdomen. It is the clear connective tissue that distends the replete’s body.

For Further Exploration

Vocabulary

Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry

Aboriginal Australian

Noun

people and culture native to Australia and its surrounding islands. Also called Aborigine.

abundant

Adjective

in large amounts.

antenna

Noun

one of a pair of thin, moveable sensory organs on the heads of insects and some other organisms.

arid

Adjective

dry.

bloated

Adjective

swollen or puffed-up.

caste

Noun

specialized type of social insect that carries out a specific function in a colony, such as a worker, drone, or queen.

climate

Noun

all weather conditions for a given location over a period of time.

Encyclopedic Entry: climate

colony

Noun

group of one species of organism living close together.

desert

Noun

area of land that receives no more than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of precipitation a year.

Encyclopedic Entry: desert

drought

Noun

period of greatly reduced precipitation.

Encyclopedic Entry: drought

dry season

Noun

time of year with little precipitation.

earth

Noun

soil or dirt.

fat

Noun

material found in organisms that is colorless and odorless and may be solid or liquid at room temperature.

food

Noun

material, usually of plant or animal origin, that living organisms use to obtain nutrients.

Encyclopedic Entry: food

indigenous

Adjective

native to or characteristic of a specific place.

larder

Noun

room or place where food is kept.

nectar

Noun

sweet plant material that attracts pollinators.

nourishment

Noun

substance that provides materials or nutrients for life and growth.

nutrient

Noun

substance an organism needs for energy, growth, and life.

Encyclopedic Entry: nutrient

predator

Noun

animal that hunts other animals for food.

rainy season

Noun

time of year when most of the rain in a region falls.

regurgitate

Verb

to vomit or throw up undigested or partly digested food.

replete

Noun

caste of worker ant with distendible crop (organ for food storage) in which liquid is stored for later use by the colony.

scarce

Adjective

rare.

specialize

Verb

to study, work, or take an interest in one area of a larger field of ideas.

Credits

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Writer

Caryl-Sue, National Geographic Society

Editor

Sean P. O'Connor, National Geographic Society

Producer

Caryl-Sue, National Geographic Society

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