Another large part of the diet of ants is other ants, especially the large female flying ants that fly in the summer months. If a winged queen is unfortunate enough to land in a territory that is already occupied by an ant colony she can consider herself very lucky if she is not found by foraging ants, attacked and eaten.
One thing that fascinates me about what Lasius niger like to eat is a honeydew substance produced by aphids. Gardeners are probably well aware of the damage that aphids do to rose stems but ants are very fond of the honeydew that these aphids produce and so these ants will ‘farm’ aphids by placing them onto choice stems and will protect them from predators such as ladybirds. When a hungry ant approaches an aphid it will gently tap the aphid on the back with its antennae. In response the aphid will produce sweet honeydew, and the ant will eat it.
The amount of food that an ant colony can bring in is staggering. The red wood ant of southern England, Formica rufa, which build large mounds of soil and pine needles on the edges of pine forests can bring in up to 100,000 insects a day if the ant colony is large and well established.
Not all ants forage above ground for their food. The yellow meadow ant Lasius flavus tend to avoid foraging on the surface but look for food in among the spoil they dig out within their nests, or from any unfortunate insect or insect larvae that happens to stumble into their nests.
Some UK ants will eat some seeds, or rather parts of the seed. Lasius alienus like to collect the seeds of the dwarf gorse plant, Ulex minor, and even Lasius niger will occasionally eat part of the viola and primula seeds, though these ants tends to eat the stalks and caruncle which contain a type of edible oil.
Outside of the UK there are ants that feed on various seeds as the Harvesters do, or on a fungus grown on leaves that they have chewed up and deposited in ‘gardens’ within their nests, such as the Leafcutter ants of the Amazonian rainforests. There is even a species of ant that feed of the blood of their own larvae, and are often called Vampire or Dracula Ants.
Questions I get asked a lot by those who keep ants, especially if it is the first time they are keeping ants is, what do I feed my ants? How often should I feed them? How should I feed them?
Well, you can feed them according to the information I have given above as it’s best to try and give them what they would normally eat in the wild. However, here is a list of things I feed my two current colonies (Lasius niger & Lasius umbratus-
Flies – especially those big fat slow moving ones that come into your house on sunny summer’s days. They love them!
Wax worms – the larvae of the Greater Wax Moth
Meal Worms – larvae of the meal beetle
Fruit beetle larvae – not native to the UK but these large juicy larvae can be ordered cheaply over the internet.
Locusts – though they do not seem to enjoy these too much
Various beetles including dermestids (sorry Dermy!)
Fruit such as apple, orange, banana (soft) and strawberries
Other ants – though I don’t like to feed ants to ants.
What about in the winter when you might not be able to capture such insects?
Well, fortunately these sort of creatures are cheaply available on the internet or in local pet stores.
Mum won’t let me buy insects; what then?
Perhaps you don’t like to kill insects to give to your ants, or perhaps you are a kid whose parents won’t let you buy live insects from the internet and keep them in your room. Never fear as there is something else you can buy that is not an insect or any other type of living creature: protein jelly! This has been a Godsend for me and my ants especially as I spend much of the year away from home. The protein jelly is often sold by sites that provide food for reptiles. It is, as the name suggests, a jelly, often coloured and/or flavoured, which is fed to reptiles but is also perfect for ants, not only the adult ants but the queen and larvae. Admittedly it is best to give your ants freshly-
How much food should I give my ants?
Another question I am often asked and, to be fair, a difficult one to answer. It really depends on how many ants your colony has and, more importantly, how many larvae it has. Larvae are hungry little things and always seem to want feeding by the adult workers. For a small colony consisting of about a dozen workers and no or little brood, probably only two or three insects a week. For a large colony with thousands of ants and larvae then it is going to take a lot of insects. The best thing I find to do is give your ants a couple of insects and just see how often they eat from it and how many ants are eating it. If you find that they eat only a little then you can reduce the food amount. If you find that any food you put in is constantly being swarmed by ants, then increase the amount you put in. It’s rather all by trial and error. The same goes with the protein jelly; if it is being constantly swarmed by ants then increased the ‘dosage’. Whatever you give the ants, insects, fruit or jelly, I would suggest removing any that is remaining after 48 hours, unless the ants are still constantly eating from it.
If you are still not sure how much to feed your ants then just send me an email with the species, and amount of ants and brood present. Just a rough guess will do, and I will try to help you out.