Indigenous Australians have long treasured Camponotus inflatus, known as honey ants or honeypot ants. The honey is valued not just for its sweet taste, but for its ability to heal wounds and sore throats. Researchers tested the golden liquid, thinking they might find something like the remarkable antimicrobial properties of Manuka honey. Instead, they found something much stranger, and potentially far more valuable.
Ants in harsh conditions on four continents have evolved the same method to store sugars for long periods between plant flowerings. Some worker ants become effectively living larders, stuffed by their siblings with nectar and other sources of sugar until their abdomens become inflated with honey.
When times are hard, the other ants get their calories by having these honeyed-up ants regurgitate their precious liquid sugar. It sounds bizarrely inefficient to us, as well as a little bit horrifying, but the technique must suit the environment better than the bees’ honeycombs because several genera have evolved the same approach independently.
“For our people, honey ants are more than just a food source. Digging for them is a very enjoyable way of life, and a way of bringing the family together,” Danny Ulrich, who is from the Tjupan language group, who runs honeypot ant tours from Kalgoorlie, Australia, said in a statement.
Dr Kenya Fernandes and Professor Dee Carter of the University of Sydney were intrigued by these claims and decided to test the honey’s activity. “Our research shows that honeypot ant honey possesses a distinctive effect that sets it apart from other types of honey,” Dr Fernandes said.
The honey kills Staphylococcus aureus, better known as golden staph, the researchers found. A killer before antibiotics, golden staph has been a major adopter of antibiotic resistance, making it one of the most studied disease-causing microbes. Nevertheless, honey ant honey is far from the first substance we have found in nature that affects golden staph, including some that show potential against its resistant forms. What is more remarkable is that the honey appears harmless to a lot of other bacteria.
“This is highly unusual,” Carter told IFLScience. “We’ve worked for a long time on honeybee honey and some bacteria may be more or less susceptible, but generally if a type of honey works on one bacterium it will work on others.” The honey also proved highly toxic to two soil fungi that might otherwise invade the ant nests, Aspergillus and Cryptococcus.
If you don’t know what you’re fighting, then a broad-spectrum bacterial-killer may be just the ticket – but our bodies depend on healthy bacteria, particularly in the gut. Having treatments that will leave beneficial bacteria alone would be a major bonus.
“We think [this specificity] may have evolved so ants can maintain a beneficial microbiome,” Carter added.
Manuka honey, made by ordinary bees that feed on New Zealand’s Manuka tree nectar, attracts a high price for its medicinal effects and scarcity, but honey ant honey would be the real liquid gold. The ants live in such tough environments that honey production is very limited. Carter told IFLScience it was a struggle to find enough for testing, even with Ulrich’s help. “I don’t see potential for farming,” Carter added. The ants forage not only on nectar by on honeydew produced by aphids feeding on mulga trees. It’s a complex ecosystem that would be hard to replicate at scale.
The only option, then, is to identify the compounds that give the honey its medicinal effect and synthesize them. Not as romantic perhaps as honey from the desert, but also not likely to send you broke for a single treatment.
Being force-fed until your body looks like it will burst sounds terribly cruel, but Carter said it could also be the cushy gig of the ant world. Safe underground from predators and the burning Australian sun, she calls them the “couch potatoes of the ant world” hanging from their nests' ceilings. No one has studied which role in the colony has the best life expectancy.
The study is published open access in the journal PeerJ