Abstract Ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) consume a broad spectrum of liquid food sources including nectar and honeydew, which play a key role in their diet especially in tropical forests. This study compares carbohydrates and amino acids from a representative spectrum of liquid sources used by ants in the canopy and understorey of a tropical rainforest in northern Queensland, Australia. Eighteen floral nectars, 16 extrafloral nectars, two wound sap and four homopteran honeydew sources were analysed using high performance liquid chromatography. Wounds comprised flower abscission scars on Normanbya normanbyi L. H. Bailey and bitemarks on Cardwellia sublimis F. Muell. where ants were actively involved in wounding. Discriminant analysis was performed to model differences between food sources in sugar and amino acid concentration and composition. All characteristics varied significantly among plant species. Honeydew contained a broader spectrum of sugars (including melezitose, raffinose, melibiose, lactose and maltose) than nectar (sucrose, glucose, fructose), but certain extrafloral nectars had similar amino acid profiles and, like honeydew sources, were often monopolized by ants. Most common amino acids across the sources were proline, alanine and threonine among 17 α-amino acids identified. Interspecific variability concealed characteristic differences in sugar and amino acid parameters between nectar, honeydew and wound sap across all plants, but these types differed significantly when found on the same plant. Among all sources studied, only a few flower nectars were naturally not consumed by ants and they were significantly less attended than sugar controls in feeding trials. These nectars did not differ in sugars and amino acids from ant-attended flower nectars, suggesting the activity of repellents. Apart from these exceptions, variability in amino acids and carbohydrates is proposed to play a key role in ant preferences and nutrition.