Ants eat in different ways depending on their stage of the lifecycle. In general, ants eat through trophallaxis or mouth-to-mouth exchange of food. However, adult ants can’t process the same food as larvae. Hence, adults and larvae use different steps and strategies to eat and digest food.
In this article, we’ll learn about these strategies and how ants eat as we discuss the following:
- How adult ants eat
- How ant larvae eat
How Do Adult Ants Eat?
Adult ants can’t eat solids. Their waists are too narrow that only liquids and very small particles can pass through. Before food even gets to their waists, ants already filter food using their mouths. [1, 2]
Ant mouths contain a special pouch called the infrabuccal pocket. This pocket acts like a strainer and prevents large particles from passing through. Any food that’s too big is rejected and is eventually spit out in the form of pellets. In some species, these pellets are taken to larvae for consumption.
On the flip side, liquids and tiny particles pass through. They are then digested, or when foraging, stored in the crop. This crop is a special reservoir in the gaster and the upper part of the ant digestive system. It’s called the social stomach and is where workers store food for later sharing.
Trophallaxis is a process of food exchange between members of a community. It involves the sharing of regurgitated food or other fluids through mouth-to-mouth transfer. It’s a common strategy in eusocial insects like ants.
For example, queens and adult ants that stay in the nest are fed through trophallaxis. When foragers get back home, they regurgitate some food from the crop and pass it on to other adult ants.
Even though workers can’t eat solids, they still collect and take them to the nest anyway. That’s because larvae can process solid food for them.
Workers feed solid food to larvae for processing. The larvae chew up, swallow and predigest the solids with enzymes. They then regurgitate some of the food back as a liquid that adults can partake in and distribute.
In one species of big-headed ants, the larvae don’t have to swallow the solid food to process it. Workers just place the food on a special groove on their bellies. The larvae then spit out enzymes onto the food to dissolve it. After a while, the workers come back to pick up and feed on the resulting slime.
Larval Hemolymph Feeding
Some ant species are incapable of trophallaxis. Adults of these ants have a unique method of eating called larval hemolymph feeding. This is a method, wherein the larvae themselves serve as a food source. 
Adult ants feed on drops of hemolymph from special structures on the larval body. Some ants also create punctures in the larval skin to suck out hemolymph.
Despite the brutal method of feeding, the larvae typically survive without long-term harm.
How Do Ant Larvae Eat?
Ant larvae rely on worker ants to feed them. They eat solids provided by workers and feed on liquids through trophallaxis.
Even the food that they regurgitate or process is fed back to them by worker ants. They patiently wait for the adults to get their fill, and until they distribute the food back to them.
Ant Digestive System
Ants have a complete digestive system. They process food within a tube-like enclosure called the alimentary canal.
This alimentary canal runs through their bodies from the mouth to the anus. It consists of 3 functional regions, the foregut, midgut, and hindgut.
- Foregut: The foregut is otherwise known as the stomodeum. It’s used for storing, grinding, and transporting food to the next region.
- Midgut: The midgut is also called the mesenteron. This region is used for enzymatic digestion of food and absorption of nutrients.
- Hindgut: The hindgut or proctodaeum is the final part of the digestive system. This region is responsible for water absorption and the excretion of waste in the form of feces.
How Do Ants Find Food?
Ants find food by foraging. Ant colonies routinely send out worker ants to search and collect food from the wild.
See this article to learn more about how ants find food.
What Do Ants Eat?
Ants eat a wide variety of food including plants, animals, fungi, and dead or rotting material. These include seeds, nectar, sap, honeydew, and meat.
Read this article to learn more about what ants eat.
Summary: How Do Ants Eat?
To summarize, ants generally eat through trophallaxis or mouth-to-mouth transfer of food. As workers forage, they store liquid food in their social stomachs called the crop. When they get home, they regurgitate this food and distribute it to the members of the colony.
Adult ants can’t eat solids. Their waists are too small to permit the entry of solid food into their digestive system. To process these foods, they bring them to larvae for predigestion. The larvae chew these foods up, swallow them, and predigest them with enzymes. Once done, they regurgitate it back in liquid form for distribution.