A feast fit for an ant.
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.
No, we humans won’t be drinking it anytime soon. Instead, it’s a nutritious staple for several species of larval and adult ants.
Snir, Orli et. al/Nature
Ants undergo a metamorphosis during their life cycle, spending a portion of their days as stationary pupa on the way to adulthood.
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.
The researchers also stained the secretions of several species of ant pupae to track who in the colony was feasting on the milk.
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.
Here, adult clonal raider ants hold larvae (small, white) up to the pupae to feed them milk.
When larval ants could not access the milk, their growth was stunted, and some even died.
Pupae developed deadly fungal infections when their milk was not consumed by their peers or manually removed by researchers.
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.
“Far from being passive colony members, pupae ... have an active and central role in ant colony organization.”