It’s the last day of Ant Week, unfortunately. I have so many species of ants to write about, but since each deserves its own post, I’ll have to save some of my favorites for another time. After four posts in a row about ants as brutal, painful, robotic dominators of the planet, I thought I’d finish up with something more light-hearted. Light-hearted, whimsical, and deeply disturbing. An ant out of Willy Wonka’s subconscious.
The honey ant is not a species but a caste within certain species, also known as a replete. The honey ant caste is found in species which inhabit deserts worldwide, though most famously the Myrmecocystus genus of the American Southwest. To understand their importance within the nest, you must understand ants’ relationship to food. Most ants have two stomachs: One for themselves, and one “community stomach” or crop that stores food for hungry members of the colony, regurgitated mouth-to-mouth. Honey ants are an extreme extension of this cooperative ethic: their bodies are living larders in which worker ants store liquids, sugars, and fats that they’ve collected. In a desert environment in which food supply is scarce or uncertain, these mobile pantries are indispensable. Their abdomens swollen with food to the size of small grapes, they remain underground in the nest until the lean times, when the other ants come to extract nourishment from them. Like the cacti which store rainwater for the entire year during the monsoons, so too do the repletes’ abdomens swell during the seasonal rains to act as reservoirs for the thirsty months ahead.
But the concentration of sweet ambrosia in their behinds makes them prime targets for other animals, including insectivores like moles and large mammals like badgers and humans, as well as other ant species. It’s not uncommon for an ant species to raid a honey ant colony, not to devour the repletes, but to capture and enslave them for their own nest. The benefit of having storing your food in living members of your colony, though, is that they’re willing to defend the nest at all costs, like any other ant. Obese and unable to move except by rolling, their only defense is to voluntarily explode, coating the invaders with a sticky syrup that traps them as the reinforcements arrive. The explosive chemicals within the repletes are still caustic after death, burning and poisoning the marauders like napalm. The replete is, as far as I know, the only animal capable of self-combustion; a tiny time-bomb of butt honey.
And that’s the honey ant. Speaking of Mr. Creosote and gluttony, join us tomorrow as Ant Week gives way to a new theme: Vice Week!