By Chris Williams on April 14, 2017.

We always assumed that ant adults were responsible for the care of the colony and that the helpless baby ants depended on adults to feed and protect them. Research has suggested that, instead, baby ants may be the ones responsible for the success of the colony.


For the record, baby ants are not cute little miniature ants. Ants have what entomologists call “complete metamorphosis” which means that the immature form and the adult form of the same insect look and act completely differently. The classic example of this type of insect development is the wormlike caterpillar of the monarch butterfly and the lovely winged adult butterfly that it becomes.

So, I’m sorry to have to tell you that a baby ant is basically a grub: a white, legless, helpless blob…or so we thought. Probably most of you have never even seen a baby ant. But, if you’ve ever disturbed an ant colony and sent them scurrying in a panic, carrying little white things in their jaws – those were the infamous baby ants.

Ant larvae help colonies in several ways but perhaps the most bizarre is to act as food vending machines for adult ants. Worker ants have such narrow waists that they only consume liquids. The no-waist larvae, however, are able to eat pieces of insects that are then digested and “re-fed” to the adults. You guessed it – some larvae vomit into the mouths of adult ants who then share this bounty with the queen.


Other ant species use the larvae to soften food by placing insect parts near the larva’s mouth where it drools digestive fluids onto the food, softening the tissues. Other adult ants will squeeze a baby’s neck to get drops of saliva, and some will pinch a baby ant’s rear end to suck up nutrient-rich anal droplets (we’re not making this stuff up). Even more bizarre, one type of ant will pierce the skin of the poor fat baby ant and essentially suck its blood to get nutrients.

In ant colony life, it’s all about the queen and the eggs she produces. She needs protein in order to lay more eggs, so the larvae perform an important service when they predigest food for the adults and, in turn, for the queen. The more larvae in the colony, the more eggs produced. The more eggs produced, the more larvae, and so on. But, in times when there are food shortages, baby ants may be killed and fed to the queen.

The larvae have a role in regulating reproduction in the colony in other ways, too. Pharaoh ant babies will share their food juices with queens that have mated but won’t waste the food on queens who are still virgins. For some ants, when the queen’s own larvae are present in a colony, worker ants tend to these royal babies and forego producing their own offspring. Instead the workers produce eggs that won’t hatch and which are fed to the queen and her babies.

Without those fat little larvae, an ant colony would grind to a halt. It’s little wonder then, that when a colony is threatened, the first concern is to save the babies!

[Source: Baby ants have a host of unexpected superpowers. Sandrine Ceurstemont,, April 6, 2017]

Photo Credit : By CSIRO, CC BY 3.0, Link



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