Whether we like to admit it or not, there are quite a few similarities between us and ants – intricate social structures, competitiveness, the occasional streak of viciousness, as well as our rich dietary preferences. Just like us, ants too can be classified as omnivores, i.e. – they tend to eat anything that contains the nutrients they need and has the taste they prefer.
In fact, of the 12,000+ species of ants worldwide, they all have different food preferences even though all of them can eat a large variety of different things. These tastes can vary so much that you can often use ant food choices to determine what kind of ant you’re looking at.
So, whether you are looking to bait ants and poison them with boric acid, whether you are taking care of an ant farm, whether you want to know what foods are safe to leave lying around near an open window, or whether you’re just curious – here’s a quick breakdown of the various ant food preferences.
Ants categorized by their dietary choices:
These food preferences can show you what type of ant you’re dealing with if you can’t discern that from their physical appearance. If you want to bait ants but can’t determine their food preferences you can use baits such as peanut butter that can be tempting to both ants that prefer sweets and ones that prefer a more salty diet.
- Carnivorous ant hunters: A lot of the more vicious and maligned ant species such as the infamous Army ants are cunning predators. They get most of their food by marching across and beyond their territories looking for prey, be it other insects and ants, be it arachnids, be it lizards, or even small mammals. Once an ant worker/soldier notices a potential prey it will signal its comrades and swarm it to death. Using their strong mandibles and venomous stings, such carnivorous ants are capable of downing prey that’s dozens of times their size and then rip it to pieces, taking said pieces to their nest. Even the most meat-loving species are still omnivores and will consume other food sources when necessary but their taste for live game is quite clear and it makes them a true Neotropical top-predator as studies such as this one from the George Washington University shows.
- Vegetarian ant farmers: There are ants, such as the Leafcutter ants, who don’t bother too much with hunting but prefer growing their own food. These sophisticated insects cut leaf pieces and drag them to their colonies. There, instead of eating them, they mix the chewed up and saliva-covered leaf pieces with their own excrements and leave them to rot. The purpose of all this? The ants consume the fungus that grows on the mixture. True agricultural experts, these ants too can consume pretty much anything else that gets in front of their mandibles but are smart enough to keep a “fresh” batch of fungi in their nest at all times.
- Dairying ants: If the agricultural expertise of ants surprised you, take a look at their dairying habits. A lot of garden ant species have developed the habit of “herding” aphids – much smaller plant-eating insects that breed at crazy rates and are disastrous to crops – and eating the honeydew that aphids produce. If you happen to see clusters of ants underneath leaves then that’s usually what they are doing. Such dairying ants will herd and protect aphids as they destroy plants and crops, and they will even protect the smaller pests from their natural predators such as ladybugs and spiders. The symbiotic combination of ants and aphids has destroyed countless gardens and crops but is quite beneficial for the ants who can’t get enough of the sweet honeydew.
- Carrion-eating ants: Much like vultures and coyotes, some ants prefer to get their protein from already dead and decaying corpses. Such ants will swarm the bodies of already dead mammals, birds or lizards, as well as of other dead insects. Most such ants can hunt as well, particularly other insects, but still, prefer corpses. Carpenter ants eat like this, for example – the misconception that they are wood eating ants is quite wrong as they only dig through wood and don’t consume it. Instead, they prefer to hunt and eat termites as well as locate and consume animals’ corpses and other food leftovers.
- Truly omnivorous ants: All ants are omnivorous in the sense that they can consume anything. Some are dedicated omnivores, however, and seem not to have any significant food preferences. In fact, some of the most persistent and annoying ants fall into this category. Fire ants eat literally anything they can get in their stomachs, for example.
How do ants find food?
Ants find food in the same way they do pretty much anything else – be deploying their army of thousands and millions of worker ants in all directions until they find something to eat. Once a worker ant detects something edible with its long antennae it gives the signal to all nearby ants to swarm it, break it down and carry the pieces back to their nest.
The anatomy of ant feeding
Ants don’t chew their food the way we do. As they don’t have internal teeth they rely on their strong mandibles to break and reshape their food while simultaneously covering it with saliva. Then, the ant chooses between three different steps:
- It carries the food with its mandibles back to the nest where it gives it to the queen or to her offspring to feed on.
- It consumes the food and deposits it into the first of its two stomachs – the mesosoma in the middle of the ant’s body – from where it will later belch it in the nest to give it as food to the queen or to her offspring.
- It consumes the food and deposits it into its second stomach – the rostrum in the ant’s hindquarters – where it will nourish the ant itself.
It’s worth noting that ants have troubles consuming solid foods because of their anatomical specifics. So, if you are looking to bait ants or to feed an ant farm, go for softer foods that will be easy for them to consume.