You know that ants are happy to make themselves at home on your picnic table, dining on your hamburger and potato salad, sipping your lemonade. But what is it that they really crave? And what can you do to keep them from being interested in your food?
Not much, it turns out. The truth is, ants will eat just about anything. Most of them are omnivorous foragers, and ants have been known to trek the distance of two football fields in search of something to eat. Food scouts lay down a trail of pheromones for others in the colony to follow, and soon an army of ants is marching in an unswerving line to reach the food before other ant colonies pick up the scent.
With more than 12,000 ant species around the world, one type of ant or another is bound to take an interest in just about any food source that’s out there. Thanks to this dietary flexibility, ants munch their way across every continent except Antarctica (even ants have to draw the line somewhere).
Most ants have a particular fondness for sweet things, from sugar to honey to your soft drink. They’ll eat almost any fruit or vegetable. For many ants, the central ingredient of their diet is a substance called honeydew—not the melon, but a sweet, sticky secretion produced by aphids and other plant-sucking insects. (You’ll find it on leaves and other plant matter, or on your car if you’ve parked under a tree.) Some ant colonies actually kidnap, care for, and “milk” aphids to ensure themselves of a continuing supply of honeydew.
ant eating honeydew
ants and snail eating orange
Some species, such as the common pavement ant, prefer meats and greasy foods. Insects, dead or alive, are protein-rich banquet fare for many species. Aggressive carpenter and fire ants have been known to prey on eggs, baby birds, and even mice. And yes, there are cannibalistic ants: some will attack and eat other—smaller—ant species.
Nuts and seeds are among other protein sources for ants, and ants are credited with dispersing the seeds of a number of tropical plants. Cheese, breadcrumbs, pet food—if they come across it, ants will eat it. Contrary to common belief, though, the carpenter ants that often find their way into our kitchens don’t actually eat wood. They do dig their way into it to build their nests, but at mealtime they look for sweets or insects.
Leaf-cutter ants living in tropical and subtropical forests are fungus-eaters, and they’ve developed an efficient system for farming their own fungi. These ants cut plant leaves and haul them back to their nests, then chew them up to become part of a composting mass on which the fungus grows.
And that ant farm you have at home for watching ants build their tunnels? Some bits of fruit and vegetables every few days, along with a few drops of water each day, should keep the residents satisfied.
As for your own food, it’s best to keep it under cover. If ants can get to it, they’ll eat it.