A little over a week ago, media reported on a 50-mile wide swarm of flying ants over the UK, which looked like rain on the radar. But they’re not the only insects that take to the sky. This neat cartoon explains the multi-layered high way that insects use to get around. Even spiders! The record flyer got as high as 5791 m (19000 ft).
Two years ago I was asked to be a consulting expert on a new documentary about Denmark’s nature. The title was Wild, wonderful Denmark (Vilde, vidunderlige Danmark). When I was a child I would sometimes borrow my dad’s video camera and make small nature documentaries and I had once dreamed of being the next David Attenborough. Participating as a consultant on a big national documentary is probably the closest I will ever get. The first episode aired last Sunday, and to my delight it was the one about forests – the one where I had consulted on the amazingness of wood ants. They even included me in a small behind the scenes clip. About 4 minutes after the first epsiode had ended, the debate and critique of it started on social media. There were many critics but also many fans. The criticism:
- Too much dramatic music
- Too much slow-motion
- Boring speaker
- Not enough information about the actual status of Danish nature
- Visually appealing. Great with slow-motion and close ups
- Beautiful music
- Lars Mikkelsen (narrator) was great
- Interesting and easy introduction to nature
Basically it sounded like it boiled down to whether or not you were a nature expert/enthusiast already and whether or not you like that documentaries have a high entertainment-factor. I went through the program again, listening for specific content. In one hour, Lars Mikkelsen (narrator) mentions the change of forests through time (from primary forest, to almost no forest, to new forest), stressing that today’s forest is nowhere near as diversity rich as our old forest used to be. There is less dead wood, less water, less species. He gets around food chains, reintroduction of species, mating and competition. There are close-ups of a hare’s ear dangling from the beak of an eagle, insects wriggling on thorns, speared by red-backed shrikes. There’s a dead fox next to the road. There’s a tree falling in the middle of the forest. To me it seems more real than many other nature documentaries I’ve seen.
Close-ups of a hare’s ear dangling from the beak of an eagle…
One thing that came up though, which I had not myself considered, was the debate about using tame animals. I didn’t know they had. The ants we filmed were definitely not tame, and nothing was staged in those clips. But looking at the final footage it is rather obvious. How else do you get a camera on the back of a golden eagle? How else do you happen to be at the right place at the right time when a fox comes close to a roe deer fawn? It is possible to get the natural shot, but it might require ten years of filming, not too. But…
is using tame animals cheating?
This has apparently been an on-going debate. Nature documentary experts BBC also uses tame animals.
This blog by UntamedScience on Wildlife film ethics is a good introduction to the important role documentary filmmakers have. They are responsible for showing us nature in a way we will probably never be able to experience it ourselves, they add a story to it. Mostly, we believe this story to be the truth.
Filmmakers have to be honest about how the footage was acquired and ensure no harm comes to the wildlife. Catching a wild golden eagle to put a camera on its’ back would most likely be stressful to the eagle. But is it okay to use a tame eagle? This will be a bird kept by a falconeer and the debate on the ethics of falconeering is even more heated than the debate on using tame animals for wildlife documentaries. Some discussion on the topic of the ethics of falconeering can be found in this blog by Feathered Photography. I’m not sure where I stand on this. I’m generally a trusting person, and believe that the film crew have done their job, with guidance from many experts, not just me. I guess, as with everything in life, we always have to ask our selves “Does this feel wrong or questionable?” If yes, then it probably is. But what is most wrong, stalking and stressing wildlife for a few minutes of footage, or using tame animals to illustrate nature?
if it feels wrong or questionable then it probably is.
Wrapping up, I’m excited to see the next episode on Sunday, which is about the ocean and coastline. There are not (m)any documentaries on Danish nature, and I hope this one will inspire more people to experience it and appreciate it.
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.
Between 2010 and 2013 I spent a portion of the summer along the coasts of Denmark; first in Northern Jutland, then in Northern Sealand. Every day I would bring children and grown-ups alike out into the water to look for marine life. We’d search for anything from sea weed to fish, including crabs and prawns. Back on land, I would go over everything we had found. Telling stories to the children about life in the sea, and educating parents about the necessity for sustainable fisheries, decreased pollution and how they might contribute. The children and I would then go on to cooking crab soup, eating snails, mussels and seaweed.
This was one of my first experiences with public engagement and I took to it like a fish to water. There is something truely satisfactory in sharing your passions with children and grown-ups and seeing interest and amazement in their eyes. I had a child, who’s mother told me she was enormously picky about food. It took me five minutes before the girl was asking me to feed her snails. Her mother ended up taking a bag home for dinner.
Bloom is an annual nature festival held in Søndermarken, Frederiksberg. In 2019 the Bloom Festival started an initiative for school children to spend half a day in the park learning about science and nature. I did three guided ant safaris around the park where we looked at live ants living in the park, some leafcutter ants that I’d brough along in a small container and specimens from the Natural History Museum of Denmark. We talked about how humans and climate affect ants and how ants adapt to different environments. This program was specifically aimed at children in 6th-9th grade.
Read what the Carlsberg Foundation thought about the day here (in Danish).
Here’s a slideshow to remind myself to keep timely updates of what is going on in my world of all things ants.
Back in October 2017 it was the annual Culture Night in Denmark. As per tradition, Copenhagen University opened up its doors to the public, with scientists showing off the cool and important work they do. Together with the Centre for Social Evolution I organised an entire corner on ants. I was there talking about the Ant Hunt, others talked about super colonies, ants as architectural inspiration, ants as symbionts and more. We also had a play area, where children (and grown-up, let’s be honest here) could help colour in big drawings of ants and create their own chestnut ants. A fun evening to remember as we gear up for season two of the Ant Hunt.