One of my biggest hopes for the future is that citizen science, and perhaps especially participatory monitoring becomes an integrated part of every community. With a little help from scientists, I believe that anyone can help monitor the status of biodiversity and the introduction of new species. By actively becoming involved, I hope this will also result in an increased appreciation of nature and biodiversity.
When school children discovered a new species of ant for Denmark while participating in the citizen science project the Ant Hunt (DK: Myrejagten) I was delighted. Building on this discovery, we turned the experience into a scientific paper which was recently published in PeerJ.
The species Tetramorium immigrans was found in the Botanical Garden of the Natural History Museum of Denmark. Based on this find and data from across Denmark and Europe we compared the ecological niche of T. immigrans with its’ sister species T. caespitum finding T. immigrans to prefer warmer temperatures and to be more prevalent in cities.
The study is a neat little example illustrating that even children can help monitor biodiversity and the introduction of exotic species. Especially because new introductions are likely to happen in areas of high human population densities.
Below is a small film by a former intern Birk (at the time an 8th grader/~14 years old). The film is a little story of setting up the Ant Hunt in an urban area. Birk spent a week with me doing field- and labwork. I think his film nicely captures how even going to a city park can be an exciting research expedition which might lead to new and exciting discoveries.
One of the fun things about being a scientist and science communicator is that you sometimes get exciting questions that you can’t answer immediately. These questions can easily send you down a rabbit hole of scientific papers that you emerge from several hours later. I got one of these questions yesterday:
“Is it a myth or fact that ant bites can cure certain diseases?”
This person had seen a TV program where a person spent several hours sitting bare-bummed on an ant nest because they claimed ant bites could cure arthritis and other joint diseases. While I know army ants can be used as stitches, I have never heard of ants curing any diseases. However, a lot of research is focusing on the nutritional and medicinal properties of insects (a big part of Ethnoentomology).
This required some research! Quick googling confirms that there may be something to the story and that scientific studies are indeed looking into the medicinal properties of ants.
Ancient medicinal practices with ants
Examples of the traditional medicinal uses of ants abound. Rastogi (2011) provides 21 examples from across Africa, Australia, China, India, Latin America, Myanmar and Thailand. In China, Tibet and Morocco ants have been used as a health food and drink ingredient to cure arthritis, hepatitis and lethargy. Among the different common practices of using insects as medicine in China are consuming the entire insect body, eating the eggs, eating the nests and eating insect secretions (we do that too – it’s called honey).
Apparently, eating fistfuls of live Pogonomyrmex (red harvester ants) on an empty stomach can induce vivid hallucinations. This has been reported in spiritual ceremonies in indigenous communities in California, but I don’t recommend testing this as it also induces prolonged catatonic states.
SO WHAT IS IT ABOUT ANTS THAT MAY BE SO BENEFICIAL?
The main theory seems to be that the health effects of the ant species Polyrhachis lamellidens are due to them containing some anti-inflammatory and pain-killing substances. Specifically, at least two polyketides have been identified in ants that are also found in plants, fungi and bacteria and have shown promise in studies for fighting arthritis, bacterial infections, and a variety of other diseases. A partially purified extract of an ant venom from the South American tree ant Pseudomyrmex sp. has shown some promises towards reducing joint pain and swelling of patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Besides the possible benefits of ants themselves, ants may also be a new source of antibiotics.
Will any ant do?
Probably not. The current tally is that there are around 16,000 species of ants worldwide. In Denmark, one of the closest related species to Polyrhachis lamellidens is Camponotus herculeanus, the Hercules ant. So if you do want to test the theory yourself, maybe start with this species. But, as this little episode of the show Bidt, brændt og stukket (bitten, burnt and stung) illustrates, sitting in an ant nest is no picnic. Camponotus herculeanus mainly nests in wood and is Denmark’s biggest ant. I’d keep my bum away from it.
While lots of more or less scientific experimentation is going on, there seems to still be some way to go before ants become a standard drug. When they do, or if indeed they already are, they will like be a part of some little anonymous white pill and you will never know that what you are ingesting came from an ant. A shame really.
For now, I’ll stick with my ant gin and a joke that it’s healthy. I’d recommend you stick with your doctor’s recommendations too.
Altman, R. D., Schultz, D. R., Collins‐Yudiskas, B., Aldrich, J., Arnold, P. I., Arnold, P. I., & Brown, H. E. (1984). The effects of a partially purified fraction of an ant venom in rheumatoid arthritis. Arthritis & Rheumatism: Official Journal of the American College of Rheumatology, 27(3), 277-284.
Blackburn, T. (1976). A query regarding the possible hallucinogenic effects of Ant ingestion in South-Central California. The Journal of California Anthropology, 3(2), 78-81.
Costa-Neto, E. M. (2005). Entomotherapy, or the medicinal use of insects. Journal of Ethnobiology, 25(1), 93-114.
Currie, C. R., Scott, J. A., Summerbell, R. C., & Malloch, D. (1999). Fungus-growing ants use antibiotic-producing bacteria to control garden parasites. Nature, 398(6729), 701-704.
Dutta, P., Sahu, R. K., Dey, T., Lahkar, M. D., Manna, P., & Kalita, J. (2019). Beneficial role of insect-derived bioactive components against inflammation and its associated complications (colitis and arthritis) and cancer. Chemico-biological interactions, 108824.
Groark, K. P. (1996). Ritual and therapeutic use of” hallucinogenic” harvester ants (Pogonomyrmex) in native south-central California. Journal of Ethnobiology, 16, 1-30.
Kou, J., Ni, Y., Li, N., Wang, J., Liu, L., & Jiang, Z. H. (2005). Analgesic and anti-inflammatory activities of total extract and individual fractions of Chinese medicinal ants Polyrhachis lamellidens. Biological and Pharmaceutical Bulletin, 28(1), 176-180.
Rastogi, N. (2011). Provisioning services from ants: food and pharmaceuticals. Asian Myrmecology, 4(1), 103-120.
Tang, J. J., Fang, P., Xia, H. L., Tu, Z. C., Hou, B. Y., Yan, Y. M., … & Cheng, Y. X. (2015). Constituents from the edible Chinese black ants (Polyrhachis dives) showing protective effect on rat mesangial cells and anti-inflammatory activity. Food Research International, 67, 163-168.
Zimian, D., Yonghua, Z., & Xiwu, G. (1997). Medicinal insects in China. Ecology of Food and Nutrition, 36(2-4), 209-220.
Choosing a certain study or career to excel in gives a sense of purpose and accomplishment. However, I have always found myself interested in many different fields. I therefore found the end of high school rather stressful. How could I choose one subject to work on for the rest of my life?
Of course, I now realise that the end of high school doesn’t mean the end of a diverse education. It just means I have to seek it out myself. This is why I try and make a point of leaving my world of ecology and talk to people from different fields, believing that all disciplines have something to learn from each other.
I recently had a conversation with Thomas Johansen from the Brorfelde Observatory . From 1953-1996, Brorfelde was an engaging workplace for astronomers. Last year (2016) it opened as an exploration center, focusing on astronomy, geology, technology and nature. The observatory has 42 hectares of land and Thomas wanted to know if I was interested in doing an Ant Hunt with them. Of course! I thought. But what do ants have to do with astronomy?
Turns out that, besides having conquered most of Earth, ants have been to Space. Don’t get too excited. We have not found extra-terrestrial life. However, the pavement ant (Tetramorium caespitum) had its’ moment in Space in January 2014, when taken aboard the international space station (ISS).
The aim was to see how ants would perform collective search in microgravity compared to on Earth. Perhaps not surprisingly, they weren’t as effective. I doubt anyone would be systematic and effective in searching if they lost contact with the surface, floated around for a while and then landed somewhere different. In fact, at any one time 7 % of the ants were floating around in the best astronaut style you can imagine. Furthermore, ants communicate through odours and we know that, at least for humans, the ability to perceive odours is affected by microgravity.
This being said, isn’t it impressive that only 7 % lost contact? With no exterior aid to keep them grounded. On top of that, a lot of those who lost surface contact were able to regain it again.
“An ant that lost contact with the surface usually turned and tumbled in the air, or skidded rapidly, in the small space between the two surfaces of the arena. This indicates that the ant exerted some pressure on the surface before losing contact with it; otherwise the ant would have just floated away from the surface without turning in the air or going quickly in one direction. Sometimes an ant attached itself to another ant to climb back down to the surface. Once back at the surface an ant appeared to hold on to it by flattening its body toward the surface.” (Countryman et al. 2015).
This behaviour may relate to how ants can hold onto each other to form bridges, or balls so they stay together during a flood (see youtube video). Some ants can also glide through the air and then find contact with a tree.
The study was carried out by Deborah Gordon and her collaborators and resulted in the publication Countryman et al. (2015) Collective search by ants in microgravity, Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution 30.