Honey Ants and Australian Aborigines

Honey ants are unusual insects because certain workers called repletes have enlarged gasters to store nectar brought to them by workers foraging on plants. Although there are several genera of honey ants in the world which have independently evolved this adaptation, the largest repletes occur in species in the arid lands of North America (Myrmecocystus spp.) and central Australia (Camponotus inflatus). These repletes have a gaster about the size of a grape and hang suspended in dome-shaped chambers in the nest.

Having studied the biology of the honey ant, Myrmecocystus mexicanus, in Colorado and Arizona since the early 1970’s I was aware of historical accounts of its use as a sweet delicacy by the Indians of the American southwest and Mexico. Some accounts even mention medicinal uses and a fermented drink made from the ants used in religious ceremonies of the Aztecs and Toltecs. The ‘honey’ in repletes tastes like cane molasses and analyses confirm it is sweet and nutritious, containing glucose, fructose and varying amounts of protein.

More recently I became intrigued by accounts of the present day use of honey ants by Aborigines in the Australian Outback. In 1984 1 first saw the black honey ant, Camponotus inflatus, while camping with an Aboriginal family near Alice Springs. They showed me how they dig and eat these insects and collect them as treats for friends in town.

In 1987 I led three EARTHWATCH expeditions to Alice Springs and Uluru National Park (Ayers Rock) to study the biology and use of honey ants by Aborigines. Since this ant occurs in country occupied by several tribal groups there are a variety of aboriginal terms for it. “Yerrampe,” the Aranda name is common. Aboriginal women at Uluru National Park call repletes “Tjala.” This ant nests in mulga (Acacia aneura) groves and feeds on nectaries at the base of the needlelike leaves (phyllodes). It is also reported to feed on flowers and lerp, a red scale on mulga, that exudes nectar.

It is usually senior Aboriginal women who locate and dig honey ants. Aborigines expend much time and effort digging. We found 27 excavation pits in one hectare at the Hamilton Downs Cattle Station outside Alice Springs. Women use digging sticks, shovels and pitis (curved wooden dishes) to expose the replete chambers. Most excavations are partial and last less than an hour. This practice probably spares the queen and most workers, thus preserving the nest and the species. Although repletes are reportedly used on occasion to sweeten dough (“damper”) or to make a drink, Aborigines primarily eat them one-by-one by biting off their swollen abdomens. Since sugar and other modern sweets are widely available, honey ant digging is now a picnic with a purpose: an opportunity for an Aboriginal mother to teach her children about the land and their ancestral way of life.

Honey ants also play a prominent role in the Aboriginal concept of Dreamtime, an epoch long ago when their totemic ancestors created all people, creatures and topographical features. Each plant and animal has a “Dreaming”–the story of its creation and importance. Aborigines born near the site of a mythological event are descendants of that Dreamtime ancestor and related to all plants and animals associated with it. The honey ant is the sacred totem for some Aboriginal clans. These honey-ant people have rituals, songs, art and initiations associated with the insects. Abstract honeyant designs have been depicted for years in ground mosaics, cave paintings, body paintings and on churingas (sacred ceremonial slabs of stone or wood). Today they are painted on canvas and printed on postcards and T-shirts sold to tourists. Thus, honey ants have had and continue to play an important role in the diet, culture and livelihood of Aboriginal people.

Dr. Conway has published articles and photographs on honey ants in entomological journals and in popular publications, such as Ranger Rick, National Geographic World, National Wildlife, Science Digest, World Book Encyclopedia, New Scientist (London), Huisgenoot (S. Africa), Your Big Backyard, Highlights for Children, Learning Magazine, and Science and Children. Geo, Australasia’s geographical magazine, recently purchased an article for publication in 1990. He has exhibited photographs at the Cincinnati Zoo’s World of Insects, the Everhart Museum, the Illinois State Museum, Tulsa Zoological Park and the Garden of the Gods Visitor Center. His work was filmed by the TV show “That’s Incredible” and more recently by the BBC for a National Geographic Explorer program on ants.

Recipe: Crispy Cajun Crickets

Tired of the same old snack food? Perk up your next party with Crispy Cajun Crickets. Roasted crickets are a tasty and unique addition to any social occasion, with a crunchy-tangy flavor all their own. To prepare, place 1 cup of healthy Cajun Crickets into a large, clean, and airy container (add a pinch of oatmeal for food). After 1 day, remove sick crickets and freeze the remainder. Wash frozen crickets in tap water, spread on cookie sheet, and roast in oven at lowest setting. When crickets become crunchy, sprinkle them with butter sauce and serve. Prepare butter sauce by adding salt, garlic, paprika, chili, or tabasco sauce to melted butter. — Mmmm – Good.

(Reprinted from the Cajun Cricket Monthly Vol. 1, No. 6, JuIy 1989, to whom it was submitted by Newletter readers, Dr. Douglas Whitman and by S. Sakaluk, Illinois State University, Department of Biological Sciences. Cajun crickets are of course specially pampered house crickets, Acheta domesticus, the “cricket on the hearth” of English literature. The Cajun Cricket Monthly is the house organ of Fluker’s Cricket Farm, P.O. Box 378, Baton Rouge, LA 70821. As Fluker’s is happy to endorse their crickets for human consumption, we are happy to pass along their toll-free number. Call 1-800-735-8537.