• 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.
    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?

      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?

      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. 

    • 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.
    • 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.
    • 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.
  • 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


    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

    characteristic to or of a specific place.

    Encyclopedic Entry: indigenous
    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


    specialize Verb

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