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.
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