Most residents of the Western United States would be shocked to know that a creature capable of ballooning into a barfing buffet is living in their midst, but that is exactly what honeypot ants are known to do.
Honeypot ants belong to the Myrmecocystus genus which contains anywhere from 27 to 34 species depending on the source of the information. These ants thrive in the hot, arid climates of Western North America where they can be found in sagebrush, rangeland, and desserts from British Columbia all the way down to the southern tip of Mexico. Species in the Myrmecocystus genus are collectively referred to as “honeypot ants” for the abilities of a special worker ant to swell into golden globes of stored food. Contrary to what their name suggests, honeypot ants do not actually store honey. Instead, honeydew and nectar are typically the liquids that these ants preserve.
Not everyone within a colony of Myrmecocystus ants can swell into a honeydew balloon-only specific worker ants known as “repletes” have the ability to become an expandable food storage vessel. The repletes are bred to essentially be living refrigerators for the colony. Although repletes have special abilities to store vast quantities of food, they are not all that different from a typical worker ant. In fact, repletes perform much of the same functions as ordinary worker ants and they are not easily distinguished from one another unless a replete has been fed an excessive amount of food.
Worker ants coming back from a foraging trip feed honeydew to young repletes. Eventually, the repletes will be fed far more food than they can digest, so their abdomen will expand into a grape-sized sphere to contain all of the excess food. Given that Myrmecocystus ants live in arid climates, colonies of honeypot ants often have to rely on repletes to feed the colony during times in which food is scarce. Despite their substantial size, repletes still have the strength to cling upside down on their colonies’ ceilings, and those lucky enough to own honeypot ants will notice that this tends to be the default position of the repletes within their colony.
Though scientists still have much to learn about honeypot ants, the fascinating abilities of these tiny creatures have been recognized for centuries. The native Aztec people of Mexico were keenly aware of the presence of honeypot ants, as they sought these ants out to consume the sweet repletes. Likewise, Native Americans living in the Western or Southwestern United States also enjoyed a bite-sized replete treat. Honeypot ants are apparently so delectable that they used to be sold as street food in Mexico City! Ants in the Myrmecocystus genus may be delicious, but do they make for good pets?
Myrmecocystus Honeypot Ants As Pets
Luckily, for those mystified by the habits of Myrmecocystus honeypot ants, several species are available for purchase. However, before purchasing a species of honeypot ant, it is important to understand that these ants have more complex lives compared to typical ant species that are offered as pets. Here is an overview of the general biology and requirements of honeypot ants:
Given that ants in the Myremcocystus genus are native to hot, arid environments, those that wish to keep these ants as pets must attempt to replicate these conditions in the formicarium that houses honeypot ants. Therefore, owners should establish an internal temperature that is hotter than typically kept for standard pet ants. The subterranean temperature should be cooler than the temperature of the formicarium’s surface, ranging from about 80-87°F. Providing ants with a surface temperature of 88-95°F may seem far too hot for the ants to handle, but the reality is that ant species in the Myremcocystus genus regularly encounter these temperatures in their natural environment. Ant owners can rest assured knowing that their honeypot ants are well-equipped to survive in seemingly scorching temperatures.
Owners should also create a humid environment for their honeypot ants just as they would for other species of ants. Fairly high humidity in the neighborhood of 65% to 80% is ideal, and this range of humidity will ensure that the ants do not become dehydrated and dry out. Of course, some sort of water source will also need to be provided for honeypot ants.
Many owners fret about choosing the right medium for their honeypot ants, but Myremcocystus ants would be perfectly happy with a sand medium for their enclosure. Such a medium is comparable to what they would encounter in their natural environment, making it a simple, convenient choice for those that wish to establish a colony of honeypot ants.
Feeding Myrmecocystus Honeypot Ants
Honeypot ants are not picky eaters, as they consume various foods ranging from insects to plant parts. Most of the liquids that cause a replete’s abdomen to transform to the size of a grape are sweet substances like nectar, sap, or honeydew from aphids. Therefore, providing a colony of captive honeypot ants with a bit of sugar water would be a terrific food source for them. Honeypot ants would also enjoy sugary foods like honey and syrup, but it is best to avoid feeding these foods to ants, as the consistency of honey and syrup could ensnare an ant in a sticky death.
When feeding insects to an ant colony, anything smaller than the size of an individual ant would be a good food option. Moreover, owners may want to avoid feeding their ants insects that they catch around their houses, as such prey could have been subjected to insecticides and pose a danger to the ants. Buying insects such as mealworms, fruit flies, or small crickets from a pet store is an affordable, safe way to provide food for ants. As with any ant colony, owners should remove any food that is beginning to spoil in order to prevent fungus from forming within the formicarium.
Some ant species rely on foraging trails to locate food sources and maintain a connection between the foraging worker ants, but this is not the case with Myrmecocystus honeypot ants. Instead, honeypot ants are independent foragers, with workers dispersing in every direction in order to cover substantial swaths of habitat.
Establishing A Myrmecocystus Honeypot Ant Colony
In order to establish a colony of honeypot ants, a prospective ant caretaker will need to acquire a mated queen and several dozen workers. Including repletes in a colony is not necessary, as the role of repletes is to store excess food for times in which food becomes scarce. Of course, owners should be providing their captive ants with a constant supply of food, making repletes seemingly unnecessary. Though they may not be necessary for the colony to survive, most owners will want to ensure that at least a handful of repletes are included in their colony. After all, witnessing the incredible transformations that these special worker ants undergo is the primary motive of most owners for keeping honeypot ants! Luckily, because honeypot ants have a natural desire to store excess food, owners that have repletes in a captive colony can still observe their remarkable food storage abilities by providing their ants with more food than they can consume. In doing so, typical workers ants will take the excess food into their subterranean tunnels and continue feeding it to the repletes until their abdomen expands to the size of a grape.
Once introduced into a formicarium, honeypot ants will soon begin to excavate their tunnels. In their natural environments, they often dig tunnels that are several feet deep in order to access permanent levels of soil moisture, but they will not need to dig such deep tunnels in captivity.
Several Myrmecocystus honeypot ant species are available online for purchase. There may be subtle differences in the coloration or behavior of different species, but all feature repletes as prominent parts of their colonies. Wild honeypot ant colonies are usually comprised of 20 to upwards of 100 individuals, so establishing a similarly-sized colony in a captive setting would be optimal. Owners should be prepared that Myrmecocystus honeypot ants have longer lifespans compared to many ants that are commonly kept in captivity-the queens can easily live for several years, while workers usually survive for around two years. Therefore, before purchasing Myrmecocystus honeypot ants, prospective owners should ensure that they are willing and able to care for a colony for several years.
Myrmecocystus honeypot ants are among the most exciting ant species available today and acquiring them from online businesses is as easy as ever! Anyone can witness the mystifying abilities of the repletes to store vast quantities of food in their expandable abdomen, and owners will be surprised by how quickly the repletes are capable of ballooning. Caring for Myrmecocystus honeypot ants does not require any advanced abilities, and if owners adhere to the guidelines in this article, they should easily be capable of maintaining a honeypot ant colony for over two years