What Do Ants Eat? All You Need to Know About Their Diet

Ants: those tiny architects of the insect world, often seen marching in a line, are more than just picnic invaders. 

With over 12,000 species scattered across the globe, their dietary habits are as diverse as the terrains they inhabit. 

From rainforests to deserts, from gardens to your kitchen counter, ants have adapted their diets in fascinating ways. 

In this article, we uncover the gourmet choices of these miniature marvels and understand the intricate dynamics of their food-finding missions. 

What Do Ants Eat
Ants eat Giant Silkmoth Caterpillar

What Do Ants Eat and Drink?

Ants are omnivorous insects with diverse dietary habits. Their food choices span from plant-based items to animal-based sources.

Let’s explore their needs in more detail.

Nutritional Needs of Ants

Ants, like all living organisms, require a balanced diet to thrive. This diet must encompass proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals.

Proteins are vital for growth and repair in ants. They obtain these primarily from consuming insects, spiders, and small vertebrates.

Carbohydrates act as the primary energy source for ants. Sources include nectar, honeydew, and other sugary substances, which provide the necessary fuel for their daily activities.

Fats, or lipids, are essential for energy storage. Ants derive these from seeds, certain insects, and other organic materials.

Vitamins and minerals, though required in smaller amounts, are crucial for various physiological functions. Ants source these micronutrients from a diverse range of foods.

Finally, hydration is equally crucial for ants. They need water to survive and are often attracted to moist areas. In environments where water is limited, they extract the necessary moisture from the foods they consume.

How Do Ants Find Food?

The process ants employ to locate food is a combination of instinct, communication, and strategy.

Ants exhibit specific foraging patterns. These patterns are often systematic, ensuring they cover a broad area in their search for food.

Pheromone trails play a crucial role in this process. When an ant finds a food source, it releases pheromones on its return journey to the colony, marking a trail for others to follow.

This chemical communication effectively alerts other ants. Guided by the pheromone trail, they can efficiently locate and gather the identified food source.

Mutualistic Relationships of Ants

While hunting and foraging for food is the primary way to find it, ants also engage in several mutualistic relationships, benefiting both themselves and other organisms.

With aphids, ants form a symbiotic bond. Ants offer protection to aphids from potential predators. 

In return, aphids provide ants with honeydew, a nutritious liquid they excrete.

Leafcutter ants have a unique relationship with fungi. These ants meticulously cut leaves, not for consumption but to cultivate fungi. 

The cultivated fungus, in turn, becomes the primary food source for the ant colony.

Let’s now look at what ants eat in specific environments.

Ants and Aphids

What Do Ants Eat in the Wild?

In the wild, ants have a diverse diet to meet their nutritional needs. They source protein by consuming live or dead insects, spiders, and parts of deceased animals.

For their carbohydrate intake, ants frequently turn to honeydew. 

As explained earlier, this liquid produced by aphids and scale insects as they feed on plants provides a rich energy source for many ant species.

What Do Ants Eat in the Desert?

In the harsh conditions of the desert, ants exhibit remarkable adaptability in their diet.

Desert ants primarily feed on seeds, a readily available resource in arid environments. Additionally, they hunt small insects, providing them with essential proteins.

Other organic matter, often remnants of deceased organisms, also becomes a part of their diet. 

For water, they extract the same from whatever they eat, be it dead insects or other organic matter.

This adaptability ensures their survival in the challenging desert ecosystem.

What Do Ants Eat in the Garden?

Gardens offer a diverse range of food sources for ants.

In gardens, ants are often seen consuming honeydew. This sugary liquid, excreted by aphids, is a favorite among many ant species.

They also prey on other insects, providing them with necessary proteins. Seeds scattered around the garden serve as another food source.

Nectar from flowers is another attraction, offering ants a sweet treat. Additionally, organic debris, like fallen fruits and decomposed leaves, supplements their diet.

Texas Leaf Cutter Ants

What Do Ants Eat in the Rainforest?

The rainforest, teeming with life, offers a plethora of food options for ants.

Rainforest ants have a diverse diet due to the rich biodiversity of their habitat. 

They consume fruits, nectar, seeds, fungi, and a wide range of insects. 

Some species, like leafcutter ants, cut leaves to cultivate fungus in their nests, which becomes their primary food source. 

Army ants are known for their aggressive hunting behavior, preying on insects, spiders, and even small vertebrates.

What Do Ants Eat in Australia?

Australia’s unique environment supports a range of ant species with varied diets.

One notable species is the Meat Ant

These ants, native to Australia, have an omnivorous diet, consuming both plant and animal matter to meet their nutritional needs.

Meat Ants, also known as Gravel Ants, build large underground nests and are prevalent in various parts of Australia.

What Do Ants Eat in an Ant Farm?

Ant farms, designed to house ants in captivity, require specific care in terms of diet.

In ant farms, ants are provided with a balanced diet

This includes sources of protein, often in the form of dead insects, and carbohydrates, which can be supplied as sugary substances or grains. 

Proper nutrition ensures the health and longevity of the captive ant colony.

Ant Colony Dynamics: Who Gets To Collect Food?

The intricate dynamics of an ant colony revolve around efficient food gathering and distribution.

Worker ants play a pivotal role in this system. They are responsible for foraging, ensuring the colony has a steady supply of food.

Once gathered, food storage is methodical within the colony. Specific chambers or areas are designated for food storage, ensuring easy access and distribution.

Central to the colony’s survival is the nourishment of the queen and larvae. 

Ensuring they receive adequate nutrition is paramount, as the queen’s health impacts reproduction, and well-fed larvae ensure the colony’s future growth.

Leafcutter Ant Queen

What Do Ants Eat Inside Your Home?

Homes often inadvertently provide a banquet for ants, attracting them with various food sources.

Common household foods, especially sugary and greasy items, are prime attractions for ants. 

Unsealed food packages, crumbs, and spills often draw them into kitchens and dining areas.

Places like kitchens, pantries, and even bathrooms can become hotspots for ant infestations. 

These areas, with their combination of food sources and moisture, make them ideal for ants seeking sustenance.

Different Species and Their Diets

Ants, with over 12,000 known species, exhibit a wide range of dietary preferences based on their environment, evolutionary adaptations, and specific needs. 

Here’s a look at the dietary habits of some notable ant species:

Carpenter Ants:

  • Primarily omnivorous, they consume a mix of plant and animal matter.
  • They are particularly fond of honeydew and other sugary substances but will also feed on insects and other small creatures.

Fire Ants:

  • Known for their aggressive nature, they are omnivores.
  • They consume plant materials, seeds, and even meat. They can also attack and consume small animals.

Sugar Ants:

  • As their name suggests, they have a preference for sugary substances.
  • However, they are also omnivorous and will consume other insects and food scraps.

Leafcutter Ants:

  • Unique in their dietary habits, they cut leaves not for direct consumption but to cultivate fungus.
  • This fungus, grown in their nests, serves as their primary food source.

Harvester Ants:

  • These ants primarily feed on seeds.
  • They gather seeds, store them in their nests, and consume them by grinding them into a nutritious paste.
California Harvester Ant Nest

Army Ants:

  • Highly predatory, they are known for their aggressive hunting behavior.
  • They consume a wide range of prey, from insects to larger creatures like spiders and even small vertebrates.

Bulldog Ants (found in Australia):

  • One of the largest ant species, they are predatory and have a diet consisting mainly of insects.
  • They use their strong mandibles to capture and consume their prey.

Pavement Ants:

  • Commonly found in urban areas, they consume a variety of foods.
  • Their diet includes insects, honeydew, seeds, and human food scraps.

Odorous House Ants:

  • They prefer sweet foods and are often attracted to sugary spills in homes.
  • They also consume other insects and honeydew.

Pharaoh Ants:

  • Omnivorous in nature, they consume proteins, sugars, and fats.
  • In homes, they are attracted to sweet substances, oils, and proteins.

Ghost Ants:

  • They have a preference for sweet foods and honeydew.
  • However, they also consume live or dead insects.

This list provides an overview of the dietary habits of various ant species. 

Each species has evolved to exploit specific food sources in its environment, ensuring its survival and the prosperity of its colony.

Ants

Conclusion

Ants, found in diverse habitats worldwide, exhibit a wide range of dietary habits. 

From consuming plant-based nectar and seeds to hunting insects and small vertebrates, their food choices reflect their adaptability and the ecosystem they inhabit. 

Some ants form symbiotic relationships, like the protection of aphids in exchange for honeydew or cultivating fungi for sustenance. 

Different species, whether in rainforests, deserts, or homes, have distinct dietary preferences. 

For instance, while desert ants rely on seeds and insects, household ants might be attracted to sugary spills. 

This article underscores the vast diversity of adaptations that ants have undertaken to match the environment they live in.

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – What’s That Israeli Bug??? Sausage Fly

 

Subject: Very Large Flying Bug Location: North Israel September 26, 2013 2:45 am Hi, I found this bug that I’ve been trying to identify for days! at first glance it reminded me of a wasp. its about an inch and a half to two inches in length and I’ve never seen an insect like this before so hoping you could give me a hand figuring out what it is! Signature: T.M.
Perhaps a Flying Ant
Perhaps a Flying Ant
Dear T.M., This one certainly has us stumped.  We would have a much easier time telling you what it is not, but that would not really be helpful.  We suspect you have the order Hymenoptera correct, and that includes ants, bees and wasps.  The legs on your insect are so insignificant and the head and antennae are also quite small.  Our best guess is a Flying Ant.  Perhaps one of our readers will have time to research this one. Moments after posting, we received a comment from Joshua identifying this Dorylus Driver Ant male as a Sausage Fly.  We confirmed that on Alex Wild Photography.  When time permits, we will try to do a bit more research into this fascinating creature. Oh wow, thank you for the help and the quick response! I would be interested in any additional information you may come by. Thanks again, Tal

Letter 2 – Unknown Ant from Egypt may be Cataglyphis species

 

Ant in Luxor Egypt Location:  Luxor Egypt August 19, 2010 6:24 pm My wife and I were walking around the Karnak temple in Luxor Egypt and kept running into these vicious looking ants. They seemed to have rather long legs and liked to keep their abdomen up in the air, looking more like a little scorpion than an ant at first sight. Couldn’t get a really good look at what it was trying to pull up from the ground there, but it was engaged in a mighty struggle to wrestle it from the ground. Please let us know what species of ant this might. Many thanks! p.s. we saw the same ant near the pyramids in Giza as well. horizon hunters
Possibly Cataglyphis Ant
Dear horizon hunters, We are posting your image prior to securing an identification and we are hoping our readership may be able to assist.  Though we are running late and cannot browse at the moment, we suspect the Ants of Egypt website may contain the answer.

Letter 3 – Unknown Brazilian Hymenopteran

 

Subject: Hematophagous insect Brazil Location: Rio de Janeiro November 29, 2015 3:06 am Dear bugman, a friend of mine in Brazil is quite desperate because of an insect that at night bite her causing massive allergic reactions. She would like to know what insect it is and how to repellent it. It look like an unt with wings or a black wasp. The wings have a yellowish tone. I am attaching some pictures. Thank you very much Signature: Dr Mirko P.
Possibly Flying Ant
Possibly Flying Ant
Dear Dr. Mirko P., There is not enough detail in any of the attached images to make an identification beyond the insect order Hymenoptera, which includes both ants and wasps.  Many people are allergic to stings from Hymenopterans. We are certain of two things.  One is that no ants or wasps are hematophagous or blood-sucking insects.  The other is that the individual in your image appears to have met an untimely end, prompting us to tag this as Unnecessary Carnage, though we understand that someone who is bitten or stung by a creature would want it identified if there is a “massive allergic reaction” associated with the bite or sting, and that possession of the actual creature might be the only way to secure an identification.  It is also possible that the sting, because that is what we are suspecting happened, occurred after swatting an ant or wasp that landed on your friend.  Swatting may be a natural reaction, but that is also a really good reason to prompt a bite or sting from a spider or insect.  The best way to remove the unwanted critter is to blow it off.  We would suggest your local Natural History Museum as a good place to have the actual specimen identified.  There is some difficultly in your acting as the middle man in this identification request.  We are also curious if the individual Hymenopteran pictured is the actual culprit.  You stated your friend was bitten at night.  Many true hematophagous insects bite at night, including Bed Bugs and Kissing Bugs.  Kissing Bugs found in Brazil are known to spread Chagas Disease. Dear Daniel, This is what my friend told me. She is positive that this insect is biting/stinging her. She admitted that she’s not sure about the insect drinking her blood, but she was assuming so. The reaction is almost immediate with little or no delay after the biting/stinging. She is also positive that is not a Chagas Disease and I tend to trust her judgement. I suggested her to visit a doctor to control the allergic reaction. She told me that for weeks she had hundreds of these insects invading her house at sundown. She fixed mosquito mesh on her house windows and doors but they were crawling in by the roof she suspects. She assure me that the biting/stinging was not provoked by her killing but it was the other way around and that if there was any carnage she was the victim not the executioner. She told me that a couple of days ago there has been a drastic reduction in temperature and it started to rain. This stopped the invasion. Now, can it be that these insects were  swarming, perhaps to find a mate or a nesting site in a particular “good” season? Best, Mirko Thanks for the update Mirko, All ants and many wasps are social creatures, and based on the new information, we surmise that this is either an ant alate, the reproductive winged males and females that swarm and start new colonies, or a worker wasp, the sterile females that tend to the queen.

Letter 4 – small ants

 

We have been invaded and infested with small ants (sweet ants). What is the best and cheapest way to get rid of them. Thanks, rd Dear RD, You probably cannot truly get rid of them but there are many theories worth trying including Chinese chalk. Just seal up the cracks where they enter the house and keep the place spotless. They love sugar and grease. Update:  August 21, 3016  Article on Tipsbulletin.com We recently published an extensive article, covering 8 natural ant remedies and all important aspects of how to best get rid of ants. It is a quick read and might be a worth a link from your page. Here’s the link – https://www.tipsbulletin.com/natural-ant-remedies-how-to-get-rid-of-ants/

Letter 5 – Trap Jaw Ant from Peru

 

Subject: Ant from Amazonian Peru Location: NE Peru January 23, 2014 4:36 pm Dear Bugman, can you tell me what ant species I photographed here? The picture was taken in the Amazon Lowlands of NE Peru. Thank you! Signature: Frank
Ant
Trap Jaw Ant
Hi Frank, My those are impressive mandibles.  We found a photo on FlickR that is identified as a Trap Jaw Ant in the genus Odontomachus that is a great match for your Ant.  The FlickR posting states:  “Usually difficult to photograph because they are always foraging. They usually rove around with their jaws open and their antennae out ahead of them in sweeping motions. If they run into something that has the right chemical profile then their jaws will snap shut on it in one of the fastest recorded movements in the animal kingdom.”  The Rockefeller University also has a nice photograph. 

Letter 6 – Trapjaw Ant

 

unknown ant
this ant was found in southeastern georgia, sandhill habitat. it was found alone the long jaws caught my eye. any idea what species it may be?
sarah and anthony, GA



Hi Sarah and Anthony,
Your photo matches a photo of a worker Trapjaw Ant in the genus Odontomachus that we located on BugGuide.

Letter 7 – Uncle Milton Obituary: Co-Creator of Wildly Popular Ant Farm Toy

 

LA Times Obituary Milton Levine, 1913-2011:  January 28, 2011 by Valerie J. Nelson “The creation of a toy that would become an American classic was triggered in 1956 by a Fourth of July parage of ants at a Studio City picnic.”  Read More
Ant Farm

Letter 8 – Unidentified Red Forest Ants

 

Subject: Curious red forest ants with prey Location: Cherokee County, NC April 4, 2015 10:51 am Photo was taken on 1st April 2015 Here are some odd red ants that I’ve never been able to identify. They seem to be about a uniform ~6-7mm in body length. I’ve only found these in rather specific environments; mixed deciduous forest in Western NC/ North GA with plenty of moist rotted logs and tree stumps. Tree stumps in particular with abandoned insect and carpenter ant tunnels seem to be their favorite; they take up residence in the old tunnels and clean them out to their liking. Colonies I’ve seen seem small with maybe a few hundred individuals at most, though to my recollection I’ve never seen a queen amongst the ones I’ve stumbled upon. They seem to be primarily carnivorous; when I do find them there’s usually several small groups hauling various forest floor insects like crickets and beetle larvae into their tunnels. The ones in the photo here had what might be a newly-molted cricket nymph. One distinct aspect is that their movement is rather different from other ants I’ve encountered; they seem to more more slowly/methodically, like the way an assassin bug moves. Even when disturbed they’re more slow to scurry about. Finally, I couldn’t take a photo that included it but there’s a slight but rather distinct berry-red adularescence/schiller effect to the back of their abdomens when they’re in the light. For some reason my camera failed to capture it. Signature: Jacob H
Unidentified Red Forest Ants
Unidentified Red Forest Ants
Dear Jacob, We are posting your ant image and labeling it unidentified.  We are also featuring the posting.  We hope to be able to provide you with an identification soon.
Unidentified Red Forest Ant
Unidentified Red Forest Ant

Letter 9 – What are this Midge and Ant doing?

 

Circle of Life Location: Contra Costa County, CA October 13, 2011 9:17 pm Saw this guy flipping around on a leaf while hiking along the edge of a marsh. Didn’t even see the ant until I looked at the picture on my camera. I wasn’t able to stick around to see who won, but I know those ants aggressively defend their eucalyptus. Signature: Fel
MIdge and Ant relationship
Dear Fel, We cannot imagine what the Ant is doing to the Midge.  You actually witnessed it, so you think it looked like a battle.  We sense that this is some symbiotic relationship or possibly a one sided relationship.  Perhaps this became Phoresy after the camera stopped running.  The midge was flipping around like he was trying to get away but the ant had a good grip on him. Those eucalyptus have some sort of psyllid insect, tortoise beetles (fast little buggers), and those ants. If you touch the leaves, the ants come running so I assumed the ant was defending his territory.

Letter 10 – What’s That Bug? will not write your university thesis

 

Subject: identification of Insects Location: nort of Mozambique November 6, 2014 3:35 am I write to bugman for help. I’m university student of Biological Sciences, University Lurio. please help me identify the animals / insects that will send. once identified, served to write my thesis Signature: Domingos Nandinho Arlindo
Ant
Ant
Dear Domingos, Congratulations on your university studies where we are presuming you have gotten training in the Biological Sciences on the proper identification of insects.  We are artists with no formal training in the Biological Sciences.  With all due respect, you should be doing your own research in this matter.  The most popular posting on our site, even though there is no image, continues to be What’s That Bug? will not do your child’s homework. Thank you

Authors

    by
  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

23 thoughts on “What Do Ants Eat? All You Need to Know About Their Diet”

    • The head in the photo we posted does look vaguely reddish. Perhaps it is the camera exposure and lighting that makes it look different.

      Reply
  1. I don’t think that it’s a Crematogaster… if I had to guess I would say it was a Cataglyphis species. Cataglyphis are heat tolerant ants that have exceptionally long legs and tend to hold their abdomens in the air in order to deal with hot ground temperatures.

    Reply
  2. For the past couple of nights these have been gathering at my terrace door, seem to be attracted by the light. However, they are either on the screen or on the tiles of the terrace and trying really hard to get in. I found two in the house that must have entered thru tiny cracks in the screen. I live in ramat Bet Shemesh, ISrael.
    Any more information? Dangerous? Do I have a nest? WHere are they coming from?
    Thanks in advance.

    Reply
  3. Actually I live in Egypt and their heads are red,trust me I’e been bitten before and once or twice they lodged on pretty tight (which is probably why I could see their head so well. XD

    Reply
  4. @Cesar, neat, I’ve never heard of Neivamyrmex before. Definitely a genus I’ll have to keep an eye out for in the future.

    After doing some digging I stumbled across this page from the Mississippi Entomological Museum-

    http://mississippientomologicalmuseum.org.msstate.edu/Researchtaxapages/Formicidaepages/faunal.lists/North.Carolina.ant.species.htm#.VSqZjpOaS4r

    Ants belonging to the genus Aphaenogaster fit my unidentified ones in both appearance and described behavior. I’d have to catch one and get a good look at it under a strong lens or microscope to narrow anything down further

    Reply
  5. ‘@Cesar, neat, I’ve never heard of Neivamyrmex before. Definitely a genus I’ll have to keep an eye out for in the future.

    After doing some digging I stumbled across this page from the Mississippi Entomological Museum-

    http://mississippientomologicalmuseum.org.msstate.edu/Researchtaxapages/Formicidaepages/faunal.lists/North.Carolina.ant.species.htm#.VSqZjpOaS4r

    Ants belonging to the genus Aphaenogaster fit my unidentified ones in both appearance and described behavior. I’d have to catch one and get a good look at it under a strong lens or microscope to narrow anything down further

    Reply
  6. I’ve seen these gathering at lights on warm summer nights in Israel before, but never really wondered about them until a friend asked. I was shocked to discover that there are driver ants in Israel. A single colony can, without warning, completely destroy three beehives in a single night. These gigantic males are harmless, though.

    Reply
    • Hi Avi.
      These are not driver ants. we have the same infestation at work and they look nothing like driver ants.
      More like the “sausage flies” mantioned before.

      Reply
  7. i have a colony of these ants here in Australia…they have a bright red head and can get very agitated when approached…they keep to themselves and i find them to be harmless compared to bull ants and jumping jacks…

    Reply

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