Ants are among the most plentiful and formidable creatures on the planet Earth, able to use their vast numbers and collective problem solving skills to defend their nests from even the largest attackers, but nothing in nature is without its enemies, and with their staggering numbers, ants have racked up quite the list of ant-agonists (sorry). Creatures that specialize in living with or living off ants are known as “myrmecophiles,” and while some of them are harmless or even helpful to their ant roommates, others use devious trickery to feed off the colony.
10. Ant-loving Snail
There are many different insects and arachnids who sneak into ant nests, but it’s a much more unusual lifestyle for a mollusk. The snail Allopeas myrmekophilos uses a tasty-smelling slime to deliberately get itself captured by ants, but once inside the nest, it stops smelling like food and goes completely ignored, living off the colony food supply as a freeloader.
9. Eucharitid Wasp
The closest cousins to the ants, wasps are highly diverse creatures with many specialized lifestyles. This particular species is an ant parasitoid; it leaves its tiny larvae on plants where they attach to passing ants and get carried back to the colony. There, they feed on the ant brood until ready to mature.
8. Oogpister Beetle
This large, predatory ground beetle preys almost exclusively on ants, but doesn’t bother trying to trick them; it storms in to ant territory, gobbles them up in its jaws, and uses its legs to kick away any ants who try to ward it off. Amazingly, the beetle extracts acids from the ants which it can then spray from its abdomen to defend itself from larger predators.
7. Microdon Maggot
Microdon is a Phorid fly, like the common fruit fly, whose strange maggots were once mistaken for a species of slug. With their flattened shield-like bodies and a protective odor, these maggots pretend to be just another part of the ant nest as they prey upon helpless ant larvae.
6. Liphyra Caterpillar
While it closely resembles the Microdon maggot and enjoys the same diet of baby ants, Liphyra is actually a caterpillar, the larva of a butterfly, which simply stumbled upon very similar adaptations. Rather than disguise itself with odor, however, the body of Liphyra is just completely, perfectly impenetrable to ant jaws. It may be attacked by ants constantly, but will still spend months in their colony, leisurely devouring their young without a scratch.
5. Blue Butterfly Caterpillar
A much sneakier caterpillar, larvae of the Blue Butterfly imitate both the scents and sounds of queen ants to receive royal treatment, and will even trick the ants into preferring them over the real queens. In one experiment, queen ants, workers and caterpillars were placed in a tank together; the queen ants immediately attacked the caterpillars, only for the workers (their own children) to break up the fight and drag the larval butterflies to safety. Though brought a steady stream of food by the workers, they may also dine on ant eggs and larvae.
4. Larva mimic Fly
What you’re looking at here may resemble just another maggot, and it’s even a close relative of Microdon, but this is actually an adult, female fly. She has no wings, and her huge abdomen – which is over 90% of her body – looks, smells and feels exactly like the larva of ferocious army ants. This one doesn’t harm any ants, but does enjoy free food and protection from the colony. Males are more normal-looking, winged flies who travel from colony to colony, mating with the freeloading ladies.
Paussinae beetles are a type of “bombardier” beetle, able to spray a defensive chemical concoction from their abdomens. Many species are Formicaphilic in many different ways; some use their sharp jaws to feed on young ants, others use spoon-like mouthparts for lapping up liquid food regurgitated by ant workers. It isn’t fully known what their giant, sometimes disc-shaped antennae are for, but ants have been seen using these antennae as handles to pick up and carry the beetles.
2. Ant Mugging Flies
When an ant is hungry enough, she may use her feelers to tap out a special signal on another ant’s face, triggering her sister to regurgitate a bit of liquid food. It’s this kind of instinctual sharing that makes ants such survivors in the first place, so you knew something would evolve to take advantage of it. Ant-mugging flies use their strange, clamp-like antennae to grab the feelers of ants, then use their tubular mouths to imitate the tapping that makes the ant spit up. The fly makes off with the sticky glob of food, and the ant is left momentarily dazed.
1. OTHER ANTS
Of course, the greatest enemies of ants are themselves, and one way in which ants get the better of one another is a lot like the relationship between mice and man; sometimes an extremely tiny species will connect their own tunnels to those of much larger ants, allowing them to sneak around and steal food from under the giant’s noses. Other ants actually “kidnap” and “enslave” ants from other colonies, some so adapted to this lifestyle that they can’t even eat without some other species to chew for them. Most sinister of all are parasites like Solenopsis daguerrei; a queen of this species never bothers making a colony of her own, but attaches herself to the body of another ant queen, sterilizes her and begins to steal her food. The hapless colony will care for the parasite’s eggs until their queen wastes away, and the parasitic ants, once mature, will leave the doomed nest to invade even more colonies.
On a final note, if you’re wondering why I didn’t write about Anteaters in a list of the greatest threats ants have ever faced…their names are a bit of a misnomer. Anteaters prefer to eat termites, which belong to the cockroach family!