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Honeypot ants, also called honey ants, are ants which have specialized workers ("repletes") that are gorged with food by workers to the point that their abdomens swell enormously, a condition called plerergate. Other ants then extract nourishment from them. They function as living larders. Honeypot ants belong to any of five genera, including Myrmecocystus. They were first documented in 1881 by Henry C. McCook.
Many insects, notably honey bees and some wasps, collect and store liquid for use at a later date. However, these insects store their food within their nest or in combs. Honey ants are unique in using their own bodies as living storage, but they have more function than just storing food. Some store liquids, body fat, and water from insect prey brought to them by worker ants.
They can later serve as a food source for their fellow ants when food is otherwise scarce. When the liquid stored inside a honeypot ant is needed, the worker ants stroke the antennae of the honeypot ant, causing the honeypot ant to regurgitate the stored liquid. In certain places such as the Australian Outback, honeypot ants are eaten by aboriginal people as sweets and are considered a delicacy.
Some worker ants turn into honeypots right from their emergence from pupa stage. The young ants stay in the nest, and the worker ants who collect food feed them. As the workers feed them with more food than they need, the surplus nutrients get stored in their abdomens. As their abdomens expand, the ants lose their mobility.
These ants can live anywhere in the nest, but in the wild, they are found deep underground, literally imprisoned by their huge abdomens, swollen to the size of grapes. They are so valued in times of little food and water that occasionally raiders from other colonies, knowing of these living storehouses, will attempt to steal these ants because of their high nutritional value and water content.
Honeypot ants such as Camponotus inflatus are edible and form an occasional part of the diet of various Australian Aboriginal peoples. Papunya, in Australia's Northern Territory is named after a honey ant creation story, or Dreaming, which belongs to the people there, such as the Warlpiri. The name of Western Desert Art Movement, Papunya Tula, means "honey ant dreaming".
Myrmecocystus nests are found in a variety of arid or semi-arid environments. Some species live in extremely hot deserts, others reside in transitional habitats, and still other species can be found in woodlands where it is somewhat cool but still very dry for a large part of the year. For instance, the well-studied Myrmecocystus mexicanus resides in the arid and semi-arid habitats of the southwestern U.S.
This method of food storage has been adopted by several seasonally active ants:
- Camponotus of Australia
- Cataglyphis of North Africa
- Leptomyrmex of Melanesia
- Melophorus of Australia
- Myrmecocystus of North America
- Plagiolepis of South Africa
- Prenolepis of North America
At least some species of these genera have specialized "honeypot" workers that, once provisioned with food to store, will not return to the usual lifestyle. On the other hand, in some species of Erebomyrma, Oligomyrmex, Pheidologeton and Proformica, workers become temporary "honeypots" only, storing lesser amounts of food for briefer periods.
A BBC documenary called Empire of the Desert Ants follows a colony from start to finish over the course of many years.
- Morgan, R. Biology, husbandry and display of the diurnal honey ant Myrmecocystus mendax Wheeler (Hymenoptera: Formicidae).
- Schultheiss, P.; Schwarz, S.; Wystrach, A. (2010). "Nest Relocation and Colony Founding in the Australian Desert Ant, Melophorus bagoti Lubbock (Hymenoptera: Formicidae)". Psyche: A Journal of Entomology 2010: 1. doi:10.1155/2010/435838.
- Media related to Honeypot ants at Wikimedia Commons