Ants are known for popping up out of nowhere towing hundreds of hungry followers. These colony-dwelling insects always seem to be getting into our food, but on the flip side, many insects make a meal out of ants.
Below, we’ll go over all the predatory insects that eat ants and how they manage to find and go after ants!
Surprisingly, the majority of ants that are eaten by insect predators are eaten inside the nest or near the nest.
However, in some cases, ants that are out foraging will get picked off by a hungry predator.
Let’s check out 7 of the most common insects that target ants for a meal and go in-depth into how these clever predators get around an ant’s defenses.
But before we do, if you’re having problems with ants and just can’t get them out of your house there are a lot of reasons! Head on over to our article, reasons why ants won’t go away on their own here to learn why and for some tips and tricks on keeping these pesky insects away!
1. Assassin Bug
Talk about a well-founded name! Assassin bugs use an interesting technique to take down their prey.
Assassin bugs use flowers, trees, and plants as a backdrop for their trap. When food comes by, assassin bugs jump into action, injecting their prey with toxins.
Ants fall prey to assassin bugs, but they aren’t the sole diet of an assassin bug. These predators are generalists, meaning they feed on whatever comes along.
Some Assasin Bugs Use Ants To Distract Predators
There is one type of assassin bug that specializes in eating ants: Acanthaspis petax. These assassin bugs use ants as a macabre form of camouflage, stacking the hollow bodies on top of its back using thread.
It’s thought that this confuses predators, who cannot identify what kind of prey they are. If they are attacked, the assassin bugs can also drop the hollow ants in an attempt to distract predators while they try to escape.
Assassin bugs are most likely to encounter ants in the garden, especially if aphids are present as this will attract both ants and assassin bugs.
Unlike assassin bugs, antlions are specialized predators of ants. Specifically, the larvae of antlions are a bane to any ants that come near, while the winged adult feeds mostly on nectar.
Antlions can be found all over the world, but prefer warmer climates.
These bizarre-looking critters might look ferocious with huge mandibles, but they’re harmless to people and provide a beneficial role in controlling ants.
They Make Pits To Catch Ants
To catch ants, antlions construct pits in dry, loose soil.
After building their masterpiece, antlions wait at the bottom of the pit. Once an ant crests the rim of the pit, it will slip on the loose soil and fall in.
According to an article in the Journal Plos One, ants make up about 70% of an antlion’s diet. The other 30% is from other small insects that tumble down into the antlion’s pit of despair.
They Will Build Pits In Areas That Don’t Get Wet
The most common place where antlions build their pits is in protected areas where rain cannot get in the pit:
- Near foundations
- Beneath Eaves
- Near decks
- Under porches
- Beneath overhangs
Antlion pits are about the width of a penny. If you see them around your home, it might be best to leave them alone.
You might be under the impression that flies are annoying but mostly harmless. They feed on rotting gross stuff anyway, right?
This is true of your average housefly, but other species of flies out there are far more predatory and downright sinister when they go about looking for a meal!
Two main flies prey on ants:
- Phorid flies
- Ant-mugging flies
Other species of flies will occasionally prey on ants, but these two species will specifically target ants.
Phorid flies are most likely to go after ants when a mound is disturbed or when an alarm pheromone is released.
This attracts the phorid flies who take advantage of pandemonium to insert an egg inside an unsuspecting ant using a needle-like body part called an ovipositor.
Over the next several weeks, the egg hatches inside the ant, and the larvae feed on the ant while the ant is still walking around and behaving normally. At the last stage, the larvae move into the head and eventually decapitate the ant and emerge as adult flies.
According to the University of Texas, phorid flies can affect up to 4% of an ant colony, but more often that number is closer to 1%
Ant-mugging flies are not as gruesome when they go after ants, and mostly only prey on deceased ants or weak ants.
Other than eating the weak and the deceased, ant-mugging flies will also fool ants into believing they are another ant and cause them to regurgitate food that the fly then eats.
According to an article in the African Invertebrates Journal, the success rate of ant-mugging flies is only about 10-20%.
Beetles dominate the insect world. There are over 350,000 different species of beetles, making up around 40% of all insects.
It’s no surprise that at least a few of these species prey on ants. Beetles are very common and can be found in a variety of habitats around the world.
Similar to flies, two main groups of beetles specifically go after ants:
- Paussines: Paussines is a large subfamily of ground beetles. They are commonly found inside ant colonies where they feed on ants.
- Bombardier: Bombardier beetles are far less sneaky than paussines and simply use a combination of two chemicals sprayed at over 200℉. Spicy!
Bombardier beetles are not as cunning as paussines. They have two reservoirs of chemicals that, when mixed, form a toxic spray to subdue both predators and prey
Paussines live inside ant colonies, which is something that makes them stand out from some of the other predators on our list.
How do paussines live inside ant colonies if they feed on ants, you ask? They pretend to be ants, and somehow the ants don’t notice!
Paussines will make noises called stridulations that are similar to ants and they will also secrete chemicals that are attractive to ants, who let them wander into the colony unopposed.
Once inside, paussine beetles mimic the noises and chemicals of queen ants. If a few workers go missing here and there, the ants ignore it and the paussine beetle gets fed.
Wasps may be creepy looking, and what’s with those dangling legs? Despite this, they are super beneficial to have around as they not only control pest insects but also help the pollination process.
Most wasps are generalist predators, feeding on whatever they can find and subdue, including ants.
While there are many different species of wasps, most will buzz around bushes and shrubs while searching for food, so this is the most likely location where wasps will find ants.
And listen, if you’re having a wasp problem, ants or no ants, you need to contact a professional to get rid of these fast! By purchasing a Wasp And Hornet Killer, you can also get rid of them!
There are two broad categories of wasps
- Social wasps
- Solitary wasps
Social wasps are more likely to use techniques such as waiting in ambush and pouncing on ants. Solitary wasps typically employ their stinger to subdue ants.
One other type of wasp, the parasitoid wasp, is a predator of ants. Eucharitidae is a specialized predator of ants and will attach to ants after hatching and be brought into the nest.
Once there, the parasitoids feed on the brood of eggs either as internal or external parasites.
This one may come as a surprise – caterpillars are slow and full of protein, shouldn’t it be the other way around?
Under normal circumstances, ants will devour caterpillars, but some butterfly species are specialized to not only prey on ants but be invited into the nest to do so.
In this way, some caterpillars are similar to the paussine beetles we spoke of earlier. They use a few tactics to gain the trust of their ant hosts:
- Sugar packets: Caterpillars use special nectary glands to secrete a substance high in sugar that feeds the ants. In return, the ants protect the caterpillar from predators.
- Chemicals: caterpillars can release pheromones that attract ants and encourage them to stay close.
- Noises: Some caterpillar species can create noises that are similar to the ones produced by ants. These are used when caterpillars need a ‘call-to-arms’ signal to recruit ants.
Caterpillars Are Sneaky!
Once the caterpillar has grown big enough to leave the plant host, it will use its arsenal of mimicry tools to crawl into the ant nest. The ants are fooled into thinking the caterpillar is one of them.
While in the nest, the caterpillar feeds on the young ants as well as the eggs. One of the most well-known caterpillars to do this is the blue butterfly.
Some caterpillars indeed feed on ants, but according to Arizona State University, 97% of ant/caterpillar relationships are mutualistic, meaning they both benefit.
In this case, the ants get food from the sugar packets and the caterpillars get protection and sometimes food.
7. Other Ants
You’d think the biggest predator of ants would be birds or beetles – something larger than ants. In reality, other ants are one of the largest predators of ants!
There are a few different reasons why ants might prey on other ants:
- Defending territory: Ants are VERY territorial. When an outsider shows up on their doorstep, it’s all-out chaos. Ants will defend their colony by fighting and even eliminating other ants, who then become food for the colony. Harsh!
- Limited resources: When food is scarce, ants will resort to eating their own to keep the colony alive and the queen fed.
- Thieves: The thief ant is a small species of ant that will invade the nests of larger species of ants and feed on young ants and eggs.
Ants preying on other ants usually take place in or near the nest. It is not as common for an ant to see another ant while out foraging and attack it.
That’s A Wrap!
Ants can be an annoying pest to have around the home and in the yard. They seem to get into everything and are constantly looking for food. Lucky for us, there are plenty of insect predators out there that eat ants.
Now for a quick recap.
The most common insects that eat ants include:
- Assassin Bugs
- Phorid flies
- Ant-mugging flies
- Paussine beetles
- Bombardier beetles
- Other ants
Some of these insects use bizarre techniques to capture ants, while others use more sinister techniques that allow them free rein inside an ant’s lair.
Ants have a few tricks up their sleeve to defend themselves against predators, with one of their main tactics being strength in numbers.
If you’re having problems with ants or with any pests, you can use our nationwide pest control finder to get in contact with a professional near you.
Barkae ED, Scharf I, Abramsky Z, Ovadia O (2012) Jack of All Trades, Master of All: A Positive Association between Habitat Niche Breadth and Foraging Performance in Pit-Building Antlion Larvae. PLoS ONE 7(3): e33506. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0033506
Brandt, M., & Mashberg, D. (2002, February). Bugs with a backpack: the function of nymphal camouflage in the West African assassin bugs Paredocla and Acanthaspis spp. Animal Behavior, 63(2), 277-284. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0003347201919104
Phillips, I. D., & Willis, C. K.R. (2005). Defensive behavior of ants in a mutualistic relationship with aphids. Behavioral ecology and sociobiology, 59, 321-325. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00265-005-0046-3
Scharf, I., Pamminger, T., & Foitzik, S. (2011, June 28). Differential Response of Ant Colonies to Intruders: Attack Strategies Correlate With Potential Threat. Ethology, 117(8), 731-739. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1439-0310.2011.01926.x
Shorter, J. R., & Rueppell, O. (2012). A review on self-destructive defense behaviors in social insects. Insectes Sociaux, 59, 1-10. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00040-011-0210-x
Zack is a Nature & Wildlife specialist based in Upstate, NY, and is the founder of his Tree Journey and Pest Pointers brands. He has a vast experience with nature while living and growing up on 50+ acres of fields, woodlands, and a freshwater bass pond. Zack has encountered many pest situations over the years and has spent his time maintaining and planting over 35 species of trees since his youth with his family on their property.
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