What Do Ants Eat?

Written by Heather Ross
Updated: October 14, 2022
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Key Points:

  • Ants are omnivores and will eat just about anything.
  • Ants like dairying ants and lemon ants have opportunistic strategies when it comes to obtaining food.
  • The favorite meal of an ant includes sweet plants, insects, and human food in your picnic basket.

Living together in massive colonies of anywhere between a few dozen individuals and a few million, ants make foraging a truly collective effort. If there’s even a small morsel of food nearby, they will find it and exploit it. Ants are native to almost every ecosystem on the planet outside of Antarctica. There are more than 12,000 documented species (out of more than 20,000 estimated), including fire ants, red ants, black ants, and carpenter ants. This article will cover some fascinating facts about what ants eat and how, including some of the amazing relationships they’ve developed with other species.

What Does the Ant Eat?

Ants eat insect eggs, aphids, fruits, and tree sap.

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Ants are truly diverse in the sheer number of foods they consume. As a whole, they are omnivorous animals, feeding on both plants and meat. Another term for an omnivorous animal that will eat almost anything it can find is a generalist or opportunist. For instance, consider the diet of the fire ants, a group that includes around 200 species with a very potent sting. Fire ants will consume spiders, earthworms, plants, seeds, honeydew, eggs, carrion (including small vertebrates), and even other insects. They are also attracted to any sweet or salty foods left around the home, which, combined with their small size and sheer number, can make them a particular nuisance for people. Common black ants, which often raid gardens and human homes, eat much the same thing as well. Black ants are particularly adept at exploiting leftover food bits.

While opportunism is very common in the ant world, some species have developed truly unique feeding strategies. The leafcutter ant, which is found in the tropical Americas, forms a mutually beneficial relationship with fungi. They will actively cultivate the fungus-like a gardener by feeding it plant material and protecting it from other animals. In turn, small parts of the fungi are used to feed the ant larvae. A leafcutter ant is incredibly strong; one of the most astonishing facts is that a single individual can carry up to 20 times its body weight in plant material at a time.

Another fascinating species is the so-called dairying ants. They exhibit mutually symbiotic behavior with the ability to “raise” aphids for food like cattle. Aphids are small insects that feed on plant sap and then produce a sweet sugary substance called honeydew. The ants will protect the aphids from danger, and in return, they get to harvest the honeydew that the aphids produce. While this does confer some advantages for the aphid, the relationship can also turn very dangerous and aggressive. If the aphid attempts to develop wings and fly away, then the ants will sometimes rip the wings right off again to ground the aphid.

Lemon ants have yet another interesting strategy. They create their natural herbicide to kill off every other plant in the vicinity except the one that they feed upon. This essentially allows them to alter the environment to suit their needs. There are many more interesting strategies, too many to list in a single article. Some ants lay traps, while others ensnare their prey in sticky material. Ants also sometimes obtain nectar from flowers, but they rarely act as consistent pollinators by transferring pollen from one flower to another as a way to fertilize them. This task is better left to bees and butterflies.

Despite their enormous diversity of diet, there is one thing they don’t normally consume: wood. Carpenter ants, because of their name, are often the subject of this mistaken belief. They merely chew through wood to create a nest, not to eat the material. Instead, carpenter ants primarily feed upon fruits, honeydew, plants, and other insects and arthropods.

How do Ants Find and Eat Food?

Ant societies are divided into a few different specialized groups. Worker ants are given the task of finding and identifying abundant sources of food nearby. As it makes the journey back to the nest, the worker will leave behind a chemical trail for the other ants to follow. These pheromones are unique to that particular colony and help mark the territory so other colonies don’t intrude. Workers can be active at any time during the day or night, depending on the species. Ants have strong mandibles to lift or hold food in place. They chew the food and mix it with saliva like any other animal.

Do Ants Eat Grass and Leaves?

Yes, grass and leaves are important components in the diet of many ant species, especially the leafcutter. The strong mandibles are well-suited for slicing up plant matter.

What Insects do Ants Eat?

Fun fact: Ants have two stomachs!

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Ants eat all kinds of insects, including wasps, moths, and other ants. Sometimes, when there’s a particularly bad famine, the queen will even eat members of her colony to stay alive. Her survival is paramount to the success of the entire colony.

Do Ants Eat Humans?

No, ants do not hunt or feed on humans (unless a person is already dead). While some species do have a very painful sting, anyone would rarely die from it.

What Type of Food are Ants Most Attracted to?

Ants are generally attracted to plant matter (particularly the sweet kind) and insects. They also enjoy foraging for human food. But they will seemingly eat almost anything.

Their favorite human food is sugar, and they also go for protein-rich meals. Some sweet favorites in your kitchen include maple syrup, honey, candy, bread, juices, and fruit. To aid in their growth, ants will eat meats, eggs, and even peanut butter.

A Complete List of the Top 15 Foods the Ant Eats

Ants feed on a truly astonishing variety of different foods. Here are some basic facts about the ants’ normal omnivorous diet.

  • Insects
  • Spiders
  • Worms
  • Ticks
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Leaves
  • Grasses
  • Fungus
  • Honeydew
  • Nectar
  • Carrion
  • Eggs
  • Small vertebrates (like birds and reptiles)
  • Sweets and other human food

Up Next:

More insects to make you run!


The Featured Image

ants eating spider on leaf
ants eating spider on leaf
© boyphare/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

Heather Ross is a secondary English teacher and mother of 2 humans, 2 tuxedo cats, and a golden doodle. In between taking the kids to soccer practice and grading papers, she enjoys reading and writing about all the animals!

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