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Do ants drink water?

Mike wrote to the "Consult-Ant" with a number of questions about ants. I am going to try to answer each one in a separate post. For the original list of questions and links to all answers, visit here.

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?

Your question reminded me of the movie Microcosmos, which contains some great footage of ants and other insects dealing with water. I'll throw the trailer below.

The second thing I thought of was communal peeing as a flood defense, where ants drink water and then run outside to "pee," removing excess water from their nests. You know you want to click the link and see it, so go ahead. I'll wait for you to come back.

Ants need water. Many drink water from drops and small puddles.

ants-drink-honey
Ants drinking honey

Ants can obtain moisture from a variety of sources, including food. Leafcutter ants and weaver ants obtain moisture from plant sap. Many ants tend aphids and other insects of the order Homoptera for liquid honeydew, which is full of water. Other ants visit extrafloral nectaries on plants for a source of sweet liquid.

Ants have also been shown to use "tools" to help them collect larger amounts of water and sweet liquids than they could carry in their crops. Harvester ants (Pogonomyrmex) have been known to toss sand into liquid food and then carry it back to their nest. Aphaenogaster ants use bits of plant material as sponges to soak up liquids and transport it.

Mark Moffett found Diacamma ants decorate their nests with feathers, which collect dew in the early morning. (I have seen Forelius ants carrying feathers here in Arizona.) He also suggests that the dead ants spread around the nest might also serve for dew collection.

As far as "absorbing humidity," Coenen-staß (1986) suggested that the red wood ant, Formica polyctena, might be able to absorb water vapor based on sorption rates. Other scientists have investigated desiccation resistance, and suggest that, for example,  some ants can reclaim their internal water through structures called "rectal pads"(Hood and Tschinkel, 1990).

Videos showing ants drinking water:

Pay close attention to the rear section (metasoma or gaster). Look how it swells and becomes clear as the ant drinks.

Microcosmos trailer. For a review, see my Growing With Science blog.

The bottom line is that worker ants do drink water, and give it to other members of the colony. As for humidity absorption, that is relatively unknown.

For more information:

Coenen-staß, D. (1986). Investigations on the water balance in the red wood ant, Formica polyctena (Hymenoptera, formicidae): Workers, their larvae and pupae. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology Part A: Physiology. 83 (1): 141-147.

Hood, G. and W.R. Tschinkel. (1990). Desiccation resistance in arboreal and terrestrial ants. Physiological Entomology, 15 (1):  23-35.

Moffett, M.W. 2010. Adventures Among Ants: A Global Safari with a Cast of Trillions. University of California Press, Berkeley.

18 thoughts on “Do ants drink water?

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  2. Mina

    we are in a sever drought and I have been pouring some water near the field ant colonies. (One is over 30 years old. ) I wasn't sure if the excitement was defense or drinking water. Glad to know they need the water. I may try adding a little honey to the water.

  3. Roberta

    Sorry to hear about the drought, but glad that you are trying to give the ants a bit of water.

  4. Diane

    Thank you for posting this.
    I also want to thank Mina for her kindness to the ants during the drought.
    🙂

  5. david

    I have ants going into my toilet bowl and bathtub faucet, so it made curious as to whether ants like or need water. This definitely answered my question.

  6. sammy

    I was curious coz tiny pharaoh ants are constantly coming to my water cup on my study table,i thought its bcoz i eat stuff while studying but this proved that they really drinks water, thanks for the post:)

  7. Cat

    Thanks for this. I have ants going down my refrigerator under it and then back up. I finally figured out they were collecting condensation. Of course if I happen to leave some food on the floor they are extra prepared to grab it but I've gotten very cautious about that.

  8. Roberta

    No ants eat leaves. Leafcutter ants take the leaves they cut back to their nests and grow a fungus on the mashed up leaf bits. The ants actually eat the fungus. Most ants eat honeydew from aphids and scales and/or other invertebrates.

  9. Joseph Kwofie

    I broke a bottle of water accidentally and within some minutes a swam of ants gathered to drink.That is my first time to observe such. Thank-you.

  10. russ nichols

    theses posts are great made my day reading them all . I enjoy ants .and am in the process of starting my own colony

  11. James

    Funny how everything I find here is about Ants getting into food bowls and how to prevent it.. But nothing on WHY THEY WOULD CRAWL INTO A WATER BOWL, seemingly like they wanna commit mass suicide and then make a darn raft like they dont wanna be there.. I live in florida and it rains enough outside and its not like these darn fire ants cant crawl outside and get water out there... It must be very rare if there is literally nothing on the internet about it.. This here is the closest thing on it but its a question on whether they drink water and how.. Like wtf? Would appreciate an expert answer on this.

  12. Roberta

    Great question. Sometimes we don't know exactly what's going on, but ants do get thirsty. It's possible that the water bowl is closer than outside and they crawl into the first water they find. Or could it be that the animal that used the water bowl left some kibbles or food residue on it that gets them interested? Even trace amounts of food would seem like lunch to an ant, and once one finds it, the rest follow.

    How to prevent? I have a couple of suggestions that may or may not be helpful. First is to keep the area around the bowl really clean, washing it with soapy water at least every day. That will wash away the ant trails, too. Second, I've heard that adding a bit of vinegar to the water keeps honey bees out, but I'm not sure about ants. It would have to be very little so the animal still would find the water palatable. Third, setting the bowl on an appropriately-sized stand and greasing the bottom of the legs with a bit of Vaseline might also help, as long as the animal drinking wouldn't get in contact with it. No guarantees.

    Good luck.

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