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.