Most ants are opportunistic feeders; they'll eat just about anything. That can include other ants, dead insects, parts of dead animals, grains, fruits and vegetables. Specific ant species do have preferences, though. Grease ants like protein-based food, but they'll chow down on other types of nourishment if fatty foods aren't available. Some ant species like fungus, while other ants love sweets.
Ants need food for fuel just like humans, and require a diet of proteins, carbs and lipids in varying quantities. They're kind of like mammals in that way. Take your pets, for instance: Your dog requires about 30 percent protein in his diet, but your cat requires around 90 percent protein to stay healthy. Sugar ants are after that sugar rush, where big-headed ants go for protein and fats if they're available.
Ants leave scent signatures made up of pheromones as they forage for food. It's like leaving a trail of breadcrumbs -- ant style -- that will lead them back home to the nest. If they find a food source, they head back to the nest to alert others, who follow the "good eats" pheromones right to your son's discarded PB & J sandwich.
There are more than 12,000 different ant species around the globe, but if you live in the U.S., you're likely to encounter a few common varieties:
- Carpenter ants -- Carpenter ants have a reputation for eating wood, but they don't actually eat cellulose. They nest inside wood, hollowing it out in the process. They prefer sweet foods like honeydew (a sugary liquid secreted by aphids), but will also eat other insects and flesh from dead animals.
- Fire ants -- These biting and stinging ants may seem like carnivores, especially if you've been bitten by one, but they eat seeds and sugars as well as meat and fat.
- Pavement ants -- These swarming ants eat just about anything around. You've probably seen them on the sidewalk trying to carry off a wad of discarded chewing gum.
- Pharaoh ants -- These small ants also eat almost anything.
- Sugar ants -- These relatively large ants are famous for being attracted to sugary foods, but they're actually omnivorous. They'll eat whatever's around.
- Thief ants -- These tiny ants are also called grease ants because they prefer meat, fat and oil.
- DuPont. "Ant Diets: Key to Effective Management." (7/17/12). http://www2.dupont.com/Professional_Products/en_US/assets/downloads/pdfs/In_the_News/AntDiets_eNewsletter_April.pdf
- Dusty Ant. "What Do Fire Ants Eat." (7/17/12). http://www.dustyant.com/what-do-fire-ants-eat-answer.html
- EcoSmart. "What Do Ants Eat?" (7/17/12). http://blog.ecosmart.com/index.php/2008/12/19/what-do-ants-eat/
- Kimball, Cheryl. "Outwitting Ants." Global Pequot Press. 2002.
- National Wildlife Federation. "Find Out What Ants Like to Eat." (7/17/12). http://www.nwf.org/Kids/Big-Backyard/Fun/Outdoors/Observing-Wildlife/Ant-Picnic.aspx
- NIDES. "Exploring Insects and Spiders." (7/17/12). http://nides.bc.ca/Assignments/Insects/insects.html
- Pestworld. "Ants." (7/17/12). http://www.pestworldforkids.org/ants.html
- Want to Know. "What Do Ants Eat?" (7/17/12). http://wanttoknowit.com/what-do-ants-eat/