One of the more fascinating phenomenons of the insect world involves the honeypot ant. These ants, which exist only in certain species, can swell their abdomens up to enormous proportions in relation to their body size. Their abdomens become engorged when other members of the colony supply the honeypot ants with nectar to store within their bodies. This nectar is then regurgitated to larvae and sister ants when food supplies become scarce.
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Typically, only larger ants of a colony swell in size and become storage units. These individuals, called "repletes," might expand their abdomen to as much as 2/5 inch or more. In addition to nectar, the repletes store other liquids such as water and fluids from other insects. The repletes hang from the tops of tunnels deep in the colony's underground nest. The abdominal colour of the repletes varies from light to dark amber, depending on the exact nature of its contents.
All North American ant species that produce repletes belong to the Myrmecocystus genera and live only in Mexico and the western United States. Depending on the species, they might be most active during the day, at night or at twilight. The different species all live in dry habitats and have deep nests. Colonies typically contain one queen along with thousands of worker ants. The nest usually has only one entrance.
Colonies of honeypot ants may compete with each other for resources, including the repletes and their supply of nectar. Usually this completion does not involve outright conflict, but when one colony obtains many more members than another, a battle can occur. The larger colony invades the smaller and kills the queen and most of the workers. They take the younger workers, the larvae and the honeypot ants back to their own nest.
Predators find the sweet nectar of the repletes tempting and often dig deep into nests to find them. A wide variety of desert animals feed on honeypot ant species. Humans also enjoy the taste of honeypot ants. Some early Native Americans considered them a delicacy. They made an alcholic drink from the nectar and thought the nectar possesed medicinal powers, according to Randy C. Morgan of the Cincinnati Zoo.
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