Monthly Archives: June 2010


Hello Consult-ant,

Thank goodness I've managed to stumble on this site; the information on other websites don't quite provide the information I'm looking for. I think I may have a rather large amount of questions because I find ants just fascinating. Although, I'm not sure if it's appropriate to ask these many questions, so sorry for the inconvenience. If it is inconvenient (which I highly think it is), then are there any books on ants that you'd recommend I can read from? And please, by all means, answer as conveniently as possible for you such as answering a few questions at a time. Any way would be appreciated. So, to my questions:

1)      I'm interested in the ant's digestion process and its role in the colony. I've read that some ants, the fully mature ones that is, can't digest solid food due to their narrow waists. So is it true that the ants would take the solid food back to the colony and give them to their larvae where, there, it is digested and converted into a liquid form? I'm guessing that the larvae have the enzymes to digest the solid food. But does this process apply to ALL ants in terms of species?

Edit: Answer Post about ant digestion

2)      I've noticed that ants carry pick up their dead and move them. I've learned that they do this to basically 'take out the trash' for sanitary purposes. But I've also noticed that these ants also carry their dead when they're far away from any ant hole. So, referring to my other question, if it's true that ants do take the solid food back to their larvae, then are these ants carrying their dead back to their larvae for consumption? Assuming ants are cannibalistic,which I'm not sure of.

Edit: See post about ant undertakers

3)      I've been meaning to catch an ant queen, but I've been curious about other methods of catching one. Are there ant pheromones that can basically attract queen ants to come out of the colony? I assume that each ant species would probably have their own type of pheromones, so I'll have to find out which species I'm planning to catch, which leads me to the next question: Where can I get these pheromones? Can I synthetically make them on my own? What differentiates certain pheromones from another? Subtleties in molecular structure?

Edit:  see post about ant queen pheromones

4)      Besides making trails and setting alarms, are there any other kinds of unique pheromones? Such as, attracting the queen ant or inducing certain behaviors like digging.

See 5.

5)      The ant uses their antennae to pick up ant pheromones, so if that's the case, then do ants necessarily 'smell' food if the pheromone is blown towards the ant's way? Essentially speaking, can ants smell their way to food?

Edit: I combined questions 4 and 5 in a post about ant pheromones.

6)      So ants have pheromones they lay to provide trails to sources of food, but I've read somewhere that ants have memory. Can you explain more about that? A 'leader' ant would teach a 'follower' ant towards a food source. Is that true? with only certain species?

Edit: Hey, I remembered to answer this question.

7)      I've read a little about trophallaxis (I hope I spelled that right, because Microsoft Word does not help in scientific terminology), but I don't see ants perform trophallaxis much. I was observing pavement ants though, so perhaps it has to do with the species. But my question is, do they perform it more underground, as in their colony? Or is it all because these ants weren't hungry at the time? And what does an ant have to do induce another ant to perform trophallaxis? Some kind of touch communication by antennae?

Edit:  Ant trophallaxis is now posted.

8)      If I were to catch a queen ant, would it be recommended to feed her some protein as well as sugary foods like honey? I was thinking about this because I've read that the eggs and larvae would need protein to grow properly (I'm guessing for muscle development and such). So is peanut butter a good protein choice, in substitute of other insects? I'm worried that peanut butter wouldn't have all the essential amino acids because peanut butter is an incomplete protein. But I'm not sure about ant development and physiology, so I'm curious.

Edit: See Feeding Ant Queens

9)      Ants(obviously) eat other insects, and I probably lack observation skills but do the ants also eat the exoskeleton also? Do they (or the larvae) have some way of digesting chitin? I did see that the ants pretty much leave MOST of the exoskeleton intact, and go for soft parts.

Edit: Can ants digest chitin?

10)  If the eggs, larvae, and pupae were placed in bad conditions, specifically temperature, for a short period of time, would they be harmed?

Edit:  Effects of heat and cold on ant larvae

11)  Are there some ant species that simply drink water and then other species that absorb it from the humidity of the air? Or do they all do both?

Edit: Ants do drink water.

12)  I'm going to be feeding my ants probably some form of sugary food, like honey. But I'm wondering if it is also good to mix the honey with some vitamin and mineral supplement. Are there any substances in typical dietary supplements that ants should not eat?

Edit: See Feeding Ant Queens

13)  If a colony with only one queen ant were to die, would she be replaced with another?Or does the colony die out. If she gets replaced, then are there always alates available to replace her at any time? Or are they only produced prior for the mating season, nuptial flight, and etc.? Is there any way of the colony knowing that the queen is about to expire, like some kind of special pheromone?

Edit:  And we finish with replacing ant queens.

Wow. I do have a little bit more questions. But, I think I've consumed A LOT of your time. I think I'll stop for now. I truly appreciate your time thus far. As you can see though, I am VERY curious about ants, especially social creatures like termites or even dolphins. I'd also like to apologize if some of my questions were already answered elsewhere. So thank you again for your time.

Extremely big thanks,


Dear Mike,

You have asked a good number of questions. Rather than trying to tackle each on of them here, which would make a very long post, I'm going to answer each question in a separate post and then link them here as they go up. That might make it easier.

As for books, I've put a widget in the left sidebar of some popular ant books. I particularly recommend that you pick up a copy of Mark Moffett's Adventures Among Ants, which I recently reviewed. I think you would enjoy it.

If anyone reading this has posts or links that they'd like to share about any of these questions, please let me know. I could use the help :-)

-The Consult-Ant

(Note: As I mentioned previously, I have been the “Consult-Ant” on the Leaping from the Box website. I answer questions about ants and ant farms. From now on I will post the answers here, and when Karen has time she will also post the answers on her site.)

Adventures Among Ants:  A Global Safari with a Cast of Trillions is the newest book by photographer/scientist/adventurer Mark Moffett from the University of California Press.adventures-among-ants

When I heard that consummate storyteller Mark Moffett was working on a book about ants, I wasn't sure what to expect. Would it be a coffee table book full of his wonderful macro photographs, like one of his famous National Geographic articles simply expanded? Or would it be a hardcore scientific treatise going back to his Harvard roots?

Turns out it is a little of both, with a bit of "extreme entomology" thrown in. Adventures Among Ants:  A Global Safari with a Cast of Trillions is truly a unique science book that is complex and multilayered, with something for almost everyone who picks it up.

Myrmecologists (ant specialists) will love his comprehensive discussion of ant species most of us only dream about seeing, from the relatively unknown marauder ants to the tiny Camponotus schmitzi swimming in pitcher plants to the supercolonies of Argentine ants in California. Nature lovers will appreciate the beautiful photographs and descriptions of habitats in many continents. Those interested in anthropology may want to consider Moffett's many comparisons of ant and human societies. And armchair travelers will definitely get a vicarious thrill from Moffett's sometimes extreme adventures, culminating in a wedding ceremony that is not for the faint of heart.

Although chock full of scientific detail, the author does throw out a few bones for the layperson reading the book. For example, I was a bit surprised to see on page 7 that he writes that ants have "three primary body sections: head, thorax, and abdomen..." If you follow the footnote to the sentence to the notes section in the back, he then corrects the statement by indicating that the parts are modified in ants, and are called trunk, petiole and gaster, the terms more commonly used by myrmecologists.

Alternating often humorous anecdotes with fascinating natural history and science, this book has a friendly, personal feel. His chapter on marauder ants is a particularly personalized account of his graduate studies. I couldn't believe how he became a photographer for National Geographic almost by accident when as a literally starving graduate student he asked them to pay for the development of some of his photos. Mary Smith saw the results and immediately asked for more, leading to a successful long term relationship with the magazine.

As an amateur photographer, I was hoping for a bit more information about how Moffett takes those superb macro photographs of ants. Beyond admitting that he learned his techniques by studying a book on how to photograph supermodels and that he uses flashes, he remains remarkably coy about how he does it. Maybe it has more to do with his personal relationship with the ants rather than any equipment he uses. In any case, the results are even more remarkable when you take into account how very difficult ants are to capture on film.

Mark Moffett says, "It's all about telling stories." Adventures Among Ants is an amazing collection of stories that you won't want to miss. Pick up a copy today!

More information:

For more reviews, check Amazon. (I have never seen so many 5 Star reviews of a book at Amazon, including one by ant scientist, Walter Tschinkel.)

A  silent video of Moffett's photographs

His National Geographic Live! lecture is available on DVD.

Other places to Find Mark Moffett's Photographs/Interviews:

Smithsonian National Museum's The Hidden Life of Ants - Photo Gallery

Tracking A 'Sisterhood' Of Traveling Ants at NPR (Fresh Air) has an interview and photographs from the book

Pirates of the Sagehen, video taken at UC Berkeley's Sagehen Creek Field Station.

Another NPR interview, this one from KJZZ, a local Arizona station prior to his National Geographic presentation in Mesa, AZ

National Geographic website Photographs of Bulldog Ants, and Field Notes.

National Geographic website Able Bodies photographs and Field Notes.

National Geographic website Army Ants photographs and Field Notes.

National Geographic Magazine Articles, (often available at used bookstores and library sales):

Marauders of the Jungle Floor. August 1986, pp. 273-286.

Trap-Jaw Ants:  Set For Prey. March 1989, pp. 394-400.

All Eyes on Jumping Spiders. September 1991. 43-63.

Leafcutter Ants. July 1995, pp. 98-111.

Ants and Plants:  A Profitable Partnership. February 1999. pp. 122-132.

Ants and Plants:  Friends and Foes. May 1999, pp.100-112.

Ants and Plants:  Tree Fortresses.  May 2000. pp. 84-97.

Army Ants: Inside the Ranks August 2006, pp. 138-148.

Lone Huntress:  The Bulldog Ant. May 2007, pp. 140-149.

Able Bodies. August 2007, pp. 140-150.

Review copy provided by publisher.

What did you think of this book?


I have an ant question!

My son's Uncle Milton Gel colony has developed a dark spot towards the
top.   On one side, it looks almost white.  On the other it looks
brown.  It is rather large and appears to be slowly growing.  Can you
tell me what this is?

Without being able to see the spot, I can only take an informed guess.  My suspicion would be that the spot of discoloration is growth of a bacteria and/or mold.

Has your son added any food to the farm? Adding food can cause molds or bacteria to grow more quickly. Even without added food, the ants bodies/by-products can start a bacteria or mold colony growing in the moist, nutritious gel. Sometimes the contamination can simply come from particles in the air that land on the surface.

In any case, if your son's ants are not too active, you might want to try scooping out the discolored area as much as possible with a clean tool. If the ants are active and healthy, they may try to remove it themselves.

You can also wait and see what happens. It's possible the mold or bacteria will not harm the ants, or the ants will not survive long enough for the spot to become an issue.

Good luck!