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Honeypot Ant (Myrmecocystus mimicus) Fact Sheet: Summary

Honeypot Ant (Myrmecocystus mimicus) Fact Sheet

Honeypot ants with liquid-filled abdomens hang

Honeypot Ant (Myrmecocystus mimicus)

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.

 

Taxonomy

Physical Characteristics

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Arthropoda — arthropods

Class: Insecta — insects

Order: Hymenoptera — ants, bees, wasps

Family: Formicidae — ants

Genus: Myrmecocystus (Wesmael, 1838) — honeypot ants, honey ants

Species: Myrmecocystus mimicus (Wheeler, 1908)

Sources: Wheeler (1908), Snelling (1976), ITIS (2021)

 

Synonyms

Subspecies of Myrmecocystus melliger (Wheeler 1908; Snelling 1976)

Length

Workers: 3-6 mm (0.1-0.2 in). Female: 8-9 mm (0.3-0.4 in). Wings of females about 10 mm (0.4 in) long (Wheeler 1908). Replete can reach a size of 3 cm, or 1 g (0.04 oz) (Snelling 1976).

General Appearance

Bicolored ant with shiny head and thorax. Reddish to dark brown with blackish abdomen. Replete’s abdomen structured with stiff plates and soft connective tissue that expands when storing liquid. Skin mildly granulated with tiny hairs that may cover all areas, except connective tissue of repletes. See Snelling (1976) for measurements and detailed scientific description.

Distribution & Status

Behavior & Ecology

Range

Myrmecocystus mimicus: Western United States and Mexico (Snelling 1976).

Myrmecocystus spp. distributed throughout northwestern U.S., Baja California, and northern Mexico (Fisher and Cover 2007).

Habitat

Arid and semi-arid habitats, including juniper woodlands, sage scrubs, grasslands, sagebush and saltbush deserts, California and grama steppe, and related habitats. Elevation range: sea level to 7,000 ft (2,000 m) (Snelling 1976; California Academy of Science 2021). Tolerate a wide range of temperatures, up to about 40°C (104°F) (Kay 1978).

IUCN Status

Not listed (IUCN 2021).

CITES Appendix

Not listed (UNEP 2021).

Populations in the Wild

Not reported.

Activity Patterns

Diurnal (although many other Myrmecocystus species nocturnal) (Wehner 2020). Low activity during cool or rainy weather, or periods of excessive heat (Cazier and Statham 1962).

Nests

Located in open areas between plants. Entrance is a rounded crater (5-7 in, or 13-17 cm, across), comprised of small- or medium-sized pebbles and soil surrounded by discarded debris (Wheeler 1908; Cazier and Statham 1962). Snelling (1976) states that M. mimicus prefers clay soils and makes low crescent-shaped mounds with an entrance concealed by a clump of dense grass.

Colony Formation

Queens search on the ground while selecting new nest sites (Schooley and Bestelmeyer 2000). Colonies often cooperatively founded by more than one fertile queen (pleometrosis), but workers eliminate all but one queen during transition to mature colony (Bartz and Hölldobler 1982; Rissing et al. 2000; Schooley and Bestelmeyer 2000). Developing M. mimicus colonies spaced close together, but in eliminating rivals over time, consolidate to form dispersed mature colonies (Hölldobler 1981; Bartz and Hölldobler 1982; Pollock and Rissing 1989). Mature colony size may range from approximately 20-130 individuals (Bartz and Hölldobler 1982).

Aggression and Defense

Within species: M. mimicus hold flexible, temporary foraging territories to take advantage of patchy food resources. Colonies engage in ritualized “tournaments” — aggressive displays — to defend territorial boundaries without fighting (Hölldobler 1976; Hölldobler and Lumsden 1980; Bartz and Hölldobler 1982). Confront each other by walking on their leg tips, raising head and abdomen, and drumming antennae around opponent’s abdomen; also kick (Hölldobler 1981; Lumsden and Hölldobler 1983). When one colony is considerably weaker (smaller worker force), its broods and repletes are raided and often incorporated into the dominant colony’s worker force (Hölldobler 1976; Hölldobler 1981; Bartz and Hölldobler 1982; Lumsden and Hölldobler 1983; Kronauer et al. 2003).

Between species: Myrmecocystus depilis (Kronauer et al. 2003) and Dorymyrmex pyramicus (Cazier and Statham 1962) known to raid M. mimicus colonies.

Communication

Appear to use chemical trails to recruit nestmates (foragers) when termite prey detected (Hölldobler 1981). Also see Aggression and Defense.

Diet and Feeding

Termites, scale and other insects, sap and nectar from flowers, and honeydew from aphids (Cazier and Statham 1962; Snelling 1976; Blom and Clark 1980; Hölldobler 1981). A general scavenger (Snelling 1976; Fisher and Cover 2007; Wehner 2020). Hölldobler (1981) observed M. mimicus carrying seeds.

Rob neighboring ants (e.g., Pogonomyrmex spp.) of food, particularly of termite prey (Hölldobler 1986). Workers defend food sources against competing honeypot ant colonies (Hölldobler and Wilson 1990).

Predators

Round-tailed horned lizard, Phrynosoma modestum (Shaffer and Whitford 1981). Some mammals, such as badger, dig into chambers to eat honeypots (Chew 1979; Bert Hölldobler, personal communication, 2021).

Interspecies Interaction

M. mimicus observed pulling scarab beetles into its nests and also ejecting them from nests; association not understood (Cazier and Statham 1962).

Relationship with Humans

Indigenous peoples in southwest North America consider honeypot ants a delicacy (Kronauer et al. 2004).

Reproduction & Development

Additional Species Highlights

Breeding

Mature, winged males and females likely mate in the air during nuptial flights, after which the mated queens land and shed their wings (Bartz and Hölldobler 1982). Nuptial flights often occur after substantial rain (Snelling 1976; Bartz and Hölldobler 1982; Schooley and Bestelmeyer 2000).

Longevity

(Bert Hölldobler and Paige Howorth, personal communications, 2021).

In the wild: unknown for workers

In managed care: Queens can live for years. Workers can live 2 years or more.

Feature Facts

  • Honeypot ants named for a special caste of large workers (called “repletes”) that store liquid in their expandable abdomen. Regurgitate nectars and water for colony members when food and water are scarce (Snelling 1976; Conway 1977; Hölldobler 1981; Hölldobler and Wilson 1990).
  • Approximately 30-40 honeypot ant species in North America (Fisher and Cover 2007; van Elst et al. 2021)
  • Tolerate temperatures of up to 48°C (120°F) (Kay 1978; Wehner 2020)
  • Myrmecocystus began to diversify about 14 million years ago, as the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico became more arid, gradually becoming deserts (van Elst et al. 2021)

About This Fact Sheet

For bibliography, click the tab at the top of this page.

 

© 2021 San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance

 

How to cite: Honeypot Ant (Myrmecocystus mimicus) Fact Sheet. c2021. San Diego (CA): San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance; [accessed YYYY Mmm dd]. http://ielc.libguides.com/sdzg/factsheets/honeypot-ant.
(note: replace YYYY Mmm dd with date accessed, e.g., 2019 Dec 31)

 

Disclaimer: Although San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance makes every attempt to provide accurate information, some of the facts provided may become outdated or replaced by new research findings. Questions and comments may be addressed to library@sdzwa.org.

M. mimicus Distribution

Distribution of the honeypot ant, M. mimicus

Honeypot ant (Myrmecocystus mimicus) distribution.

Adapted from www.d-maps.com.

Of Colonies and Castes

Colony of honeypot ants at the San Diego Zoo

Underground colony of honeypot ants (Myrmecocystus mimicus) at the San Diego Zoo.

Like other ants, honeypot ants live complex social lives. Workers, queen ants, and repletes — akin to living "food storage vessels" — aid the survival of the colony. Also shown here: whitish developing pupae.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.

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