Background Info

The big bellies of honey ants serve as “living larders” for their entire colony. (A colony is a group of ants.)
 
Larders (also called pantries) are cool areas where food is stored. Honey ants dig their nests deep underground, where the temperature inside the nest is cooler than it is outside. 
 
The honey ants that hang from the roofs of these underground nests are called repletes. During the rainy season, other ants feed repletes nectar gathered from flowers. Slowly, the bellies of the repletes swell to the size of grapes.
 
In the dry season, repletes are “drained” to provide food for the rest of the colony. Other ants drain a replete by stroking its antennae. When its antennae are stroked, the replete will regurgitate—throw up—the liquid in its belly. Other ants eat the liquid themselves or take it to other members of the colony. 

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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