Honey ants refer to several different types of ants that have an unusual appearance and set of behaviors making them quite remarkable. Also called repletes and honeypot ants, these insects don’t just go out to gather small bits of food to carry back to their nests. Instead, they fill their abdomens with huge amounts of food, which make them look similar to small crawling honey pots. The gathering types of honey ants are then able to feed the rest of the ant colony through extraction of this food, water, or protein from their distended abdomens.
It’s certainly odd to think of any creature acting as a walking pantry for its fellow creatures, but this is indeed the function of honey ants. Their appearance is incredibly distinct because you will note the hugely swollen abdomen, and the size of the “honey pot” can be similar to a grape or cherry, but is often a translucent amber color. Each separate genus of honey ants does have size variation. Not all the ants in a colony will have large swollen bellies. Usually it is the female workers of a certain size that do the food harvesting and collecting, while smaller females take care of the ant queen, which rules each society, and males typically serve a much more minimal role acting to mate with the queen and then quietly and rapidly expiring.
It’s difficult to describe the behavior of honey ants as a whole, since there are so many different types. There are for instance, nocturnal and diurnal groups, and diet will depend much on available insects and plant sources. Most of these ants do live in desert or dry regions and they can be found in many places in the world.
One ant called the small honey ant, which has a range through most of the Americas, is sometimes called the false honey ant. It shouldn’t be confused with the honeypot ant and doesn’t exhibit the abdomen food storing behaviors of most honey ants. Instead it’s a very common insect that loves sweet things, and is the bane to many a kitchen when it conducts raids for things like honey and sugar. If you’ve ever had ants attack any of your sweet foods, you’ve very likely met the false honey ant.
In contrast, true honey ants have a more limited range, and are more likely to be encountered in arid areas. They can’t generally survive the colder temperatures where false honey ants appear to thrive. These ants also have become the occasional target of human populations, since they do contain small amounts of honey. Aboriginal populations in Australia and its surrounding continent, and groups in Northern America and Mexico have been known to dig up the nests, quickly suck the honey from the full-bellied ants, and press the ants to extract their honey, according to Eva Crane in her 1999 book The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting.