Honey ants, sometimes called honeypot ants, are found in a few arid areas of the world, including Mexico and Australia.
“Honeypot ant” is a common name for the many species of ant with workers that store honey in their abdomen.
Honey pot ants are not a separate ant species, but rather a specialised role taken by designated worker ants of various different species. These individuals, called repletes (1), are fed nectar in times of plenty until their abdomens engorge and they become a living pantry, some can become so large that it’s impossible for them to leave their nest. The food is stored for the whole colony and is used during the dry seasons when food is not so plentiful. In times of scarcity, other worker ants induce them to regurgitate some of this concentrated energy source stored in their swollen abdomens. This behaviour is an example of the caste system within ants and other eusocial (2) insects. Repletes are a subset of the sterile “helper” caste. They act as food reservoirs for their colony, but are also harvested by humans, particularly by indigenous communities. Unfortunately for the replete, she usually dies after her food supply disappears. After having reached the diameter of a small grape, her body simply cannot shrink to its previous proportions. Other workers soon replace her (American Bee Journal)
- Specialised worker ants also called plerergates (or rotunds) from the Greek πλήρης (plḗrēs, “full”) + ἐργάτης (ergátēs, “workman”)
- Eusocial animals share the following four characteristics: adults live in groups, cooperative care of juveniles (individuals care for brood that is not their own), reproductive division of labour (not all individuals get to reproduce), and overlap of generations (Wilson 1971).
There are around 34 different species of honey pot ants.
These ants only occur in countries that have arid, dry or desert-chaparral terrains such as Australia (Camponotus and Melophorus sp), Melanesia (Leptomyrmex sp), Africa (Cataglyphis and Plagiolepis sp) and North America (Prenolepis and Myrmecocystus sp).
In Australia, they’re mainly found in the red earth of the mulga country in areas of desert in the Northern Territory and Western Australia. The community of Papunya, in the Northern Territory where the Western Desert Art Movement began is known as the Honey Ant Dreaming site.
Honey Ant Dreaming
The Aboriginal art symbol for a honey ant site is a star-shaped network of tunnels leading to the chambers where the honey ants live. Honey ants are depicted in many Aboriginal paintings that feature bush tucker dreaming stories.
In 1971 art teacher and graduate from the National Art School in Sydney, Geoffrey Bardon, was appointed as a primary school teacher in the remote government settlement at Papunya, about 150 miles northwest of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory of Australia. Geoffrey found a “dispossessed and dispirited community, struggling to maintain cultural practices against the full force of assimilationist policies”. A school mural project brought him into contact with senior men who were custodians for the Tjukurrpa (ancestral stories). Although Bardon encouraged the children to draw their own stories, the senior men did not permit them to do the drawings. When he proposed the idea for the mural, which featured a traditional design, he discovered that his students could not participate, as only the older men in the community had the authorisation to paint their ancestral designs. Bardon encouraged the elders to paint using ‘no whitefella way.’ The Honey Ant Dreaming mural was revised at least twice. The original version contained symbols representing the honey ant Ancestors and this version needed revision because some elders believed it revealed too many tribal secrets.
The mural is known only through photographs as it was painted over by the administration soon after it was made.
The artwork by indigenous Australian peoples as depicted in this style known as dot painting is a symbolically rich language. Much like ancient Mesoamerica the Australian aborigine did not communicate with a written alphabetic language but with a pictographic language. Their art is also a written language. Each picture tells a story. The image on the left is the cover of a regionally produced health guide and the image on the right interprets the symbolism present in this artwork.
“Bush Tucker in Kidney Failure and Diabetes” published in Australia by the Renal Resource Centre in conjunction with the Nephrology Department at John Hunter Hospital. Artwork was created by Herbert Leslie Elvin.
This guide was produced for people with chronic kidney disease who still want to consume indigenous foods, or as termed locally “bush tucker”. As with much of the population of the Western world obesity and the chronic health conditions associated with it are also a major health problem for aboriginal peoples. The rates of diabetes in aboriginal peoples in Australia is 3 to 5 times that of non-indigenous people (1). This booklet is a dietary guide that lists foods by both Latin and Common names and breaks down the macro and micro nutrient profile of commonly eaten wild foods. It is broken into four sections. Animals; Insects and insect products; Fruits; and Vegetables.
- or witjuti grub. I grew up knowing this as a Bardi grub.
The witchetty grub is the wood-eating larvae of one of several species of moths. I will look into this grub a little further in a Post on the Maguey worm.
Aboriginal women say these ants live under hard ground in sandhill country and workers carry grass and winged ants out of the nest when the weather is “Uterne uterne”, “hot, hot” and say workers and repletes come to the surface after rain. Aboriginal women said they might eat the clearer sweet repletes, but not the bitter whitish ones (Conway 1992). Just after rain is the best time to look for them, or when you see the ants beginning to fly.
Misconceptions exist on the nature of the fluids which the repletes store. The sweet fluid commonly stored is not a true honey. It consists rather of simple sugars, unmodified from their original state, i.e., nectar from flowering plants, exudates from galls and the secretions of aphids
M. mexicanus collects food mainly in the form of nectar from yucca plants (Yucca glauca) and sugary galls formed on scrub oaks (Quercus gambelii).
These ants don’t just collect nectar from flowers, but also sap leaks on plant stems (called extrafloral nectaries) and honeydew produced by hemipteran (1) sap-suckers like aphids and scale insects.
- Hemiptera or true bugs are an order of insects comprising over 80,000 species within groups such as the cicadas, aphids, planthoppers, leafhoppers, bed bugs and shield bugs
Nectar and honeydew are not the only fluids which these ants store. Creighton (Conway 1986) commented on water-filled repletes of M.mexicanus, for which he coined the term “aquapletes.” A third type of replete has been found, and although the fluid they contain has not currently been identified it is guessed that it consists, in large part, of the body fluids of insect prey. Elsewhere it is mentioned that repletes may also contain liquids scavenged from dead invertebrates such as earthworms (Myrmecological News Blog). The stored fluid is opaque, whitish to grey, with a considerable amount of sedimentary material. A detailed chemical analysis of the fluid needs to be made to determine its composition.
It requires about 1000 honey bearers to yield one pound weight (Troy) (1) of honey (Romanes 1882)
- A troy pound is equal to 12 troy ounces and to 5,760. grains, that is exactly 373.2417216 grams.
The flavour of the honey when squeezed into the mouth has been described as “tart” or “vinegary”. You can eat the whole ant, which adds a crunchy texture and a citrus like tang.
The repletes of M. mexicanus and other honey ants were delicacies for the Native Americans residing in the southwest U.S. and parts of Mexico. The Natives called them “nequacatl” (1) and would consume the swollen bellies of the ants. Mexicans would also use the “honey” from the replete ants in medicines and food, as well as ferment it for alcoholic beverages (Conway 1986). Conconi & Moreno (1988) write that the “honey” was fermented and drunk for its anti-inflammatory and anti-fever properties. The honey was directly applied as a topical application or pomade for eye diseases, cataracts (Conconi & Moreno 1988) or growths over the iris known as pterigions (2).
- Written elsewhere as necauzcatl “necu” (necutli) honey and azcatl (ant) (Conconi & Moreno 1988)
- A pterygium is a pinkish, triangular tissue growth on the cornea of the eye. It typically starts on the cornea near the nose. It may slowly grow but rarely grows so large that it covers the pupil and impairs vision. Often both eyes are involved. The exact cause of pterygium isn’t known. One explanation is that too much exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light can lead to these growths. It occurs more often in people who live in warm climates and spend a lot of time outdoors in sunny or windy environments.
Rastogi (23011) notes that ant honey is used for healing bruised/swollen limbs and as a treatment for earache. How the honey is used was not mentioned. Faast and Weinstein (2020) note that the Kaytetye (1) people used the honey from the Camponotus species to treat colds and sore throat.
- (pronounced kay-ditch) an Aboriginal Australian people who live around Barrow Creek and Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory. (Koch etal 1993)
- American Bee Journal Volume 160 No. 12 December 2020 : https://americanbeejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/ABJ_December_2020_FINAL-BT-sm.pdf (last accessed 12.5.21)
- Andersen A.N. (2002). Common names for Australian ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Australian Journal of Entomology 41
- Conconi, R.D., En, M., & Moreno, C. (1988). THE UTILIZATION OF INSECTS IN THE EMPIRICAL MEDICINE OF ANCIENT MEXICANS.
- Conway, John R. (1986), “The Biology of Honey Ants”, The American Biology Teacher, 48 (6): 335–343, doi:10.2307/4448321
- Conway, J. R. (1991, July). The biology and aboriginal use of the honeypot ant, “Camponotus inflatus” Lubbock, in Northern Territory, Australia. The Australian Entomologist. Entomological Society of Queensland. https://search.informit.org/doi/10.3316/informit.108392124224680
- Conway, J. R. (1992). NOTES ON THE EXCAVATION OF A NEST OF MELOPHORUS BAGOTI LUBBOCK IN THE NORTHERN TERRITORY, AUSTRALIA (HYMENOPTERA: FORMICIDAE). , 31(3), 247–248. doi:10.1111/j.1440-6055.1992.tb00500.x
- Faast, R., and Weinstein, P. (2020) Plant‐derived medicinal entomochemicals: an integrated approach to biodiscovery in Australia. Austral Entomology, 59: 3– 15. https://doi.org/10.1111/aen.12433.
- Hiddens, Les (1999) Wild Australia with the Bush Tucker Man : Penguin Books Australia : ISBN 0 670 87914 2
- Koch, Grace; Koch, Harold, eds. (1993). Kaytetye Country: An Aboriginal History of the Barrow Creek Area. Melbourne University Press. ISBN 978-0-949-65970-5.
- MYRMECOLOGICAL NEWS BLOG “Ants of Arizona: A Glimpse” PUBLISHED 14 AUGUST 2019 (last accessed 12.5.21) : https://blog.myrmecologicalnews.org/2019/08/14/ants-of-arizona-a-glimpse/
- McCook, H. (1881). The Honey Ants of the Garden of the Gods. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, 33, 17-77. Retrieved May 11, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4060516
- Rastogi, Neelkamal. (2011). Provisioning services from ants: Food and pharmaceuticals. Asian Myrmecology. 3. 103–120.
- ROMANES, GEORGE J. (1882). The Honey Ants of the Garden of the Gods, and the Occident Ants of the American Plains. Nature, 25(644), 405–407. doi:10.1038/025405a0
- Wheeler, W.M. (1908). Honey ants, with a revision of the American Myrmecocysti. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, 24, 345-397.Wheeler34524Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History1908
- Wilson, E. O. The Insect Societies. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.