Here I will discuss what ants eat, and also be giving tips on what to feed your captive ants.
The diet of ants is so wide and varied that I could spend all day talking about what they eat and probably would still have more to say. As this website is about the species of ant found in the UK, I will concentrate of those species.
On the whole ants are scavengers. They like to eat soft-bodied mites, insects, the larvae of various flies and beetles, and springtails. In addition to this Myrmica species, such as M. rubra, also like spiders. From my experience Lasius niger do not seem to like spiders very much, though they will eat them.
Ants will also scavenge from carrion (dead mammals) such as birds and mice. They are not particularly adept hunters but tend to get most of their food opportunistically such as when insects get injured and cannot move or defend themselves, or when they become trapped or when freshly dead.
Ants will also eat sweet sugary things such as fruit, especially over-ripe, jam, candy and honey, though for the development of the larvae and the egg-producing of the queen insect protein is needed. Adult ants can quite happily live off a sugar diet.
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 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 tend 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.
What Should I Fed My Captive 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 captive colonies.
My parents won’t let me buy insects / I don’t like to kill things; what should I do?
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 when I was in the Navy, when I spent 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; especially for the queen and larvae. Admittedly it is best to give your ants freshly killed insects, but this jelly is an awesome alternative. The good thing about it is that, unsealed, it can last up to a year, and once open and kept in your fridge it can last a couple of months. Even if you start to see mould growing on it when you take it out of the fridge, you can just scrape the mould off. My ants really enjoy this jelly and it has kept my colonies alive for a seven-month period when I was away from home and a friend was looking after them for me.
Where can I get that protein jelly?
If you click on the image below, it will take you to a website that sells it.
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 to be fed by the adult workers. For a small colony consisting of about a dozen workers with little or no brood; probably only two or three insects a week. For a large colony with thousands of ants and larvae, 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 all by trial and error really. 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 feel free to contact me and tell me what species you have and the number of ants and brood present (just a rough guess will do), and I will try to help you out.