[Pictured, myrmecocystus testaceus: Left, worker ants. Right, replete/plerergate/rotund ant]
These are fascinating little creatures! The workers hunt for nectar, then take it back to their fat little friends who turn the nectar into a kind of "honey" to be used during times of drought. They taste good, too!!!
There are about 13,000 known species of ants in the world (an estimated 22,000 species total). Of those, only about 35 different species are honeypot ants (first documented in 1881 by Henry McCook).
Those species only occur in countries/continents with arid/dry/desert-chaparral terrains such as Australia (species camponotus and melophorus), Melanesia (species leptomyrmex), Africa (species cataglyphis and plagiolepis) and North America (species prenolepis and myrmecocystus).
The United States honeypot ants (myrmecocystus) are found only in the western states from the lower edge of Washington to just below the Mexican border and from Texas to Southern California. In Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Nevada they are found in sagebrush steppe; in Nevada in pinon-juniper woodland. In California they range from coastal sagebrush to sagebrush steppe, with most in chaparral areas.
Honey ants are found in arid or semiarid environments. Though some species live in very hot deserts, most prefer the hot/dry transitional edges of deserts and chaparral and woodlands which are somewhat cool but still dry for most of the year.
Of the types found in North America, about 20 can be found in California especially Southern California (i.e. myrmecocystus-mexicanus and myrmecocystus-testaceus) in elevation ranges from 1400 to 6900 feet.
In Southern California, testaceus can range from sea level to about 4300 feet, with most below 4000 feet and usually in chaparral (in descending order of occurrence; and desert grassland, sagebrush, shrub steppe, pebbly sage washes, pine/oak woods and open sage areas, pinyon/juniper woodland and maritime desert scrub). So near me, they can be found north of Los Angeles, just over the mountains along the southern edge of the Mojave Desert, San Bernardino, the Cochella Valley, Joshua Tree, and neighboring areas, including one of my favorite stomping grounds, Mt. San Jacinto.
The worker ants mostly prefer to gorge on desert flowers, cacti fruit and the excretions of aphids feeding on yucca plants for the sugary nectar during the rainy seasons, nectar from yucca plants (yucca glauca) and sugary galls formed on scrub oaks branches (quercus gambelii) and wasp galls (holcaspis perniciosus). These galls leak a clear sugary liquid on which the ants feed. But they will also eat small insects, dead animals even other ants, anything that has moisture, which they in turn force-feed to what we think of as the “honeypot ants” or “repletes”, “plerergates”, or “rotund” ants.
They tend to be crepuscular foragers (at dawn and dusk), gathering near their entrance, then spreading-out to forage about 15-20 minutes before dusk. Like other species, they spread to other areas when the queens and winged males leave the nest to mate in flight, then establish other colonies of up to a few thousand. If there are neighboring honeypot colonies nearby, because moisture and the repletes are so valuable to them, they have been known to raid other nests, killing all the workers and carrying the larva and repletes to their own nest to be raised as one of their own.
The repletes of all honey ants were considered a delicacy to native peoples from the Australian Aboriginals to the Native North Americans and others. In Mexico, they are sometimes called "nequacatl" and Mexican natives would also use the "honey" from the repletes in medicines, food and fermented for alcoholic beverages. The method of harvest is always the same; you dig a hole near the colony, sometimes about as deep as you can stand in, usually about as deep as you can sit in, then slowly dig toward the nest until you expose the lower levels where the soil is cool, maybe even a little moist, and where the repletes and larva are kept (refilling the hole afterward).
As to their taste (I KNOW that’s what you REALLY want to know!), again, the basic rule still applies; the taste of living things is affected by what THEY eat, so if a colony of honey ants has gorged primarily on nectar and fruit, their taste will be sweeter.
Otherwise, they can taste somewhat “lemony”, “vinegary” or “sweet-and-soury.” They have a mouth-feel like a kind of small, soft grape (with legs), but can be crushed/burst in the mouth with the tongue, especially if you bite them apart, or you can pop the whole thing in your mouth which adds a nice little crunch and a slight citrusy-tang.
Oooh! I did my PhD fieldwork in the savannahs of northern Australia. Because for half of the year the plains are flooded, the green tree ants here make a living building nests in trees. The colony finds a leaf and builds a chain of ants off until they reach the next leaf. They pull the second leaf back to the first one, and sew them together - repeating until they have a shelter (pic below was one of the paperbark trees I was doing my research on). One of their defenses (other than swarming with annoying bites) is that they produce citric acid from the end of their abdomen. It's quite pleasant when working to grab one every now and then and dab it on your tongue for a lemon pick-me-up 🙂
I've heard of people (and * maybe * the aboriginal people using quantities of them as a seasoning, but there isn't a heck of a lot of genuine nutritional value for effort.
Yep, already know about these too! 😆
Also, it's the LARVA that Aborigines like. Personally, you can get that "citric" tang from most biting/stinging ants.
Also, all larva, beit ants, bees, wasps, etc. have the same "eggy" taste or "mouth feel".
SAY MY NAME! 😉