dinner is served

Watch: Ant "milk" acts as powerful elixir for entire colonies

A feast fit for an ant.

Daniel Kronauer

dikkyoesin1/RooM/Getty Images

Ants may be small, but they’re impressively capable.

They build intricate colonies, can lift up to 5000 times their own body weight, and have adapted to live in nearly every climate on Earth.

But one of their lesser-known specialties is their ability to make milk.

No, we humans won’t be drinking it anytime soon. Instead, it’s a nutritious staple for several species of larval and adult ants.

martinkuehrer / 500px/500px/Getty Images

Snir, Orli et. al/Nature

Writing this week in the journal Nature, researchers detail the discovery of a milky substance secreted by ants in their pupal stage that fortifies the whole colony.

Ants undergo a metamorphosis during their life cycle, spending a portion of their days as stationary pupa on the way to adulthood.

Snir, Orli et. al/Nature

Snir, Orli et. al/Nature

That stationary stage was long thought to be a time when the bugs did not contribute to the colony.

But as adults tend to the pupae, they appear to feast on milk made from their peer’s moulting fluid.

When pupae were isolated from their colonies, they continually secreted the milk. Adult ants were immediately drawn to it when reunited with the pupae.

Snir, Orli et. al/Nature

Daniel Kronauer

The researchers also stained the secretions of several species of ant pupae to track who in the colony was feasting on the milk.

Stained milk (dark blue) can be seen traveling to this adult honeypot ant’s gut as it drinks from a silken cocoon.

Daniel Kronauer

Snir, Orli et. al/Nature

The team analyzed the secretions to figure out what they’re made of — discovering a host of nutrients that are beneficial to adults and larvae.

It’s also rich in hormones and neuroactive substances that could influence colony behavior.

Daniel Kronauer

Here, adult clonal raider ants hold larvae (small, white) up to the pupae to feed them milk.

Daniel Kronauer

Daniel Kronauer

When larval ants could not access the milk, their growth was stunted, and some even died.

But it’s not just adults and larvae who benefit from this process.

Pupae developed deadly fungal infections when their milk was not consumed by their peers or manually removed by researchers.

Snir, Orli et. al/Nature

Snir, Orli et. al/Nature

It might seem strange that it took researchers so long to discover this milk-like substance.

That’s due in part because the milk is consumed right as it’s secreted and is rarely visible in colonies.

Snir, Orli et. al/Nature

Now it seems that pupae deserve a lot more credit than they’ve been getting for their role in keeping the colony alive and thriving.

“Far from being passive colony members, pupae ... have an active and central role in ant colony organization.”

Snir et. al, study authors

Daniel Kronauer