So we often see scenes in cartoons in which a nice picnic is laid out with all sorts of tasty food, and all of a sudden, we see half a sandwich moving away, followed by a banana, then the other half of the sandwich, etc.

What made this trope of ants stealing picnics so popular?

The earliest animation I could find was Ants at the Picnic (1930) by Disney.

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    "What made this notion of ants stealing picnics so popular?" Er, real life? ;) – Walt Jul 31 '16 at 23:01
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    @Walt, you must have big-ass ants where you live if each one can walk away with a sandwich :-) – user35594 Jul 31 '16 at 23:02
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    Nah, the opposite! ;) – Walt Jul 31 '16 at 23:04
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    @Walt, can I just say you have very pretty fingernails ;-) – user35594 Jul 31 '16 at 23:08
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    One? No, many. i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2015/07/29/16/… – cde Aug 1 '16 at 0:33

General Idea about Ants:

Ants can eat a wide variety of foods. They eat plants, other insects and sometimes steal food from other insects. They also like sweets, which explains why they're more than happy to invade a picnic that showed up in their area.

In cartoons/films:

This ant-stealing-our-picnic has its comic aspect (as shown in movies/tv shows) which is a reason behind its popularity. In many shows, you probably see that leading character(s) goes/go to ant's area (or nearby area) and they steal foods and carry these to their home. This scene is depicted in a comedy way to make viewer laugh and it worked out.

Stealing food might be their way of saying that you decided to have a picnic on our turf and now you will pay.

In some species, there is a forager who finds foods when finished. When food is laid out on a picnic, smell of nice food, which is of course, makes them come out and steal it.

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