When you think of ants, you might not think of lunch, but that’s just what these insects are to many. Ants make an excellent food source, rich in protein, vitamins, and minerals. Due to their small size, they make ready prey for many creatures ranging from other insects to humans. Though predators probably won’t provide enough ant control to rid your home of an established colony, having animals that eat ants around may deter them from coming into your home.
Ants are so small that they’re easily consumed by nearly all animals, often as they’re eating something else. However, there are many animals that seek ants out specifically as well.
The anteater is one of the best known animals that consumes ants. This creature is built specifically for the task. Anteaters have sharp claws that help them tear into anthills. Their long, slim snouts fit easily into the anthill to consume the feast. An anteater’s tongue can flick out 160 times a minute to slurp up the ants within. This allows the anteater to feed quickly before attacking ants can get too many bites or stings in.
Bears seek out ants to eat the brood. Between late spring and late summer, ant brood is a popular food source for young cubs. Rather than digging into nests in the soil, bears seek out ants nesting in logs or under rocks, where the brood is easier to access.
Though ants have many defense mechanisms, these are often ineffective against larger predators. Carpenter ants in particular are a favorite of Eastern moles, striped skunks, and many other creatures.
Other insects can consume ants in a variety of ways. Several types of spiders trap ants in their webs. When the ant walks on the web, the movement alerts the spider who will quickly strike and wrap the ant up for later consumption. Other types of spiders will lie in wait and simply pounce on passing ants.
Antlion larvae, also known as doodlebugs, dig pits designed to trap ants and other insects that they like to feed on. The doodlebugs hide in the bottom of the pit and attack ants that fall in.
The phorid fly is another major predator for ants, particularly the fire ant. These flies lay their larvae on the ants. When the larvae hatch, they consume the ant. This method is so dangerous to fire ants that these flies are sometimes actively used as an ant control method.
Many birds enjoy consuming ants. These insects make up a major part of a bird’s diet, alongside the other insects that they will actively consume. Some birds that particularly enjoy feeding on ants include downy woodpeckers, wild turkeys, hummingbirds, grouse, starlings, and sparrows.
Birds also interact with ants in another way, participating in a behavior known as anting. When a bird is anting, it lands near an ant nest and either picks up the ants and rubs them on itself or sits and allows the ants to swarm over its body. The ants have often eaten afterwards.
There are many theories as to why birds engage in anting. This typically happens with ant species that produce formic acid. Some speculate that the acid kills mites and parasites. Others believe that the acid may be soothing to birds that are molting. Still others hypothesize that anting is a natural way to prepare the ants as a food source. After the ants have secreted their acid, they might make a tastier meal.
One of the most fascinating things that eat ants is a fungus known as ophiocordyceps unilateralis, or the zombie-ant fungus. This fungus grows aggressively through the ant’s body and ultimately takes over the ant’s brain. The fungus compels the ant to leave the nest and seek the proper height, temperature, and humidity for the fungus to grow.
Once the ant is in a suitable location, the fungus forces it to clamp a leaf in its jaws and hold still. The fungus ultimately grows through the ant’s head and releases its spores. Since the infected ant will typically select a spot near its nest, these spores easily find other ants to infect and consume.
Image via Flickr by Chris Wakefield 1
Many ants will readily eat other ants. Fire ants will consume other fire ants as well as smaller species. In response, ants that belong to the Pheidole genus have developed a habit of killing fire ant scouts. If they cannot wipe out the scouts, these ants will relocate their nests to avoid being eaten. Army ants are known for feeding on other ant species as well.
In many cultures, human eat ants. The practice of consuming insects like ants is known as antomophagy. Ants are a good source of protein. Queen leaf-cutter ants are a particular delicacy in the Santander region of Colombia. There, the new queens are captured during their mating flights. These are a symbolic wedding gift. The ants’ wings are removed and they’re soaked in salt water before they’re eaten.
Insects like ants are so nutritious that the UN encourages their consumption. Insects require less feed and less space to raise as a food source, and as such have become the focus of the UN, which has spent millions on research about mass insect production. Raising insects takes no fertilizers, emits no harmful gasses, and consumes minimal water. Ants can be prepared and eaten in many ways and could become a staple food source around the world.
Ants live a risky life and are easily eaten by the predators described above as well as others like snakes, fish, lizards, snails, beetles, and caterpillars. If these aren’t keeping the ants under control in your area, however, talking to a pest control professional can help you take care of those in your home.