Honey Ants​—A Desert Delicacy

YUMINIYA, our Aboriginal friend, wants to share one of her desert secrets with us. Leading us into arid scrub north of Alice Springs in central Australia, she carefully examines the sandy ground. There, underneath the mulga trees, a species of acacia, she spies the tiny creatures that will lead us to a sweet reward. They are honey ants.

She digs vigorously, following ant tunnels deep into the sandy soil. Soon her hole is more than three feet (1 m) deep and wide enough to sit in. “You can dig for honey ants any time of the year, but winter is best because in summer you get too hot,” she calls out from the hole. We watch as she studies the exposed tunnels with a trained eye. “You need to know which one to follow,” she explains.

Yuminiya soon finds the nest. Inside are at least 20 honey ants whose swollen abdomens, as large as grapes, are filled with amber liquid. The little insects  hang from the earthen ceiling, unable to move because of their bloated state. Within minutes, Yuminiya collects over a hundred ants from several chambers. “The honey of these ants is one of our sweetest bush foods,” she says.

Living Honey Pots

Honey ants are one of the most unusual of the more than 10,000 known ant species. Unlike bees, which store honey in honeycombs, honey ants store nectar inside the living bodies of worker ants called repletes. The ant colony draws upon these living “honey pots” during lean times.

To deposit or withdraw food, an ant will use its antennas to tap the right code on the antennas of a replete. The replete then opens its mouth to unlock the “honey pot.” A special stomach valve, composed of four flaps, controls the flow in or out. Over a lifetime of several months, a replete can apparently be drained and refilled several times.

Repletes normally live a sedentary but safe existence underground, where they are protected from drought, heat, and insect predators. In this dark subterranean world, they guard against bacteria and fungi by smearing their bodies with antibiotic fluid from a special gland.

Where does the “honey” come from? The food chain, as it were, begins with the sap and nectar of acacia trees. Next, tiny insects called aphids feed on these natural juices. Worker ants then milk the aphids of some of their excess sugar, which is called honeydew, or they collect nectar directly from the trees. Finally, the workers feed this collected liquid to the repletes. Of course, since the inactive repletes have modest nutritional needs, most of the honeydew ends up in the “honey bank”!

But what about the aphids? Are they the losers here? Not at all. For one thing, the ants leave them adequate nectar. For another, the ants protect the aphids from parasites and predators. Yes, both ants and aphids are winners in this symbiotic partnership called mutualism.

“Go to the ant,” says the Bible, “see its ways and become wise. Although it has no commander, officer or ruler, it prepares its food even in the summer; it has gathered its food supplies even in the harvest.” (Proverbs 6:6-8) How true these words, for ants are indeed cooperative, highly organized, and industrious! And how amazing that these hardy desert dwellers manage to produce such a sweet delicacy in such inhospitable surroundings!

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The swollen abdomen of the honey ant is filled with sweet nectar

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Pages 10, 11, top: M Gillam/​photographersdirect.com; page 11: © Wayne Lynch/​age fotostock