Appears in

Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

  • About

ants insects of the order Hymenoptera, living in large social groups with a complex organization and hierarchy. Their colonies typically comprise winged males, wingless sterile females (workers), and fertile females (queens).

Ants have been a food resource for Aborigines in Australia, who relished especially the honey ants, Melophorus spp, which they call yarumpa. Bodenheimer (1951) furnishes a good description:

The ‘honey ant’ itself is a modified worker of the colony, which is so overfed by the ordinary workers that its abdomen swells to the size of a marble, about 1 cm. in diameter, in consequence of the liquid honey stored within. With the exception of a few transverse plates (tergites and sternites), the abdominal walls are reduced to an extremely fine membrane, through which the honey can be clearly seen. The insect’s viscera are compressed into a small space near the vent. The ant in this condition is naturally unable to move from the spot. It appears that the inflated ants in this extraordinary way provide for the needs of the colony during the barren season of the year, acting as living barrels, which can be tapped as required. … When a native wishes to partake of the honey, he grips one of the ants by the head, and placing the swollen abdomen between his lips he squeezes the contents into his mouth and swallows them. As regards the taste, the first reaction the palate receives is a distinct prick of formic acid, which is no doubt due to a secretion produced by the ant in self-defence. But this is both slight and momentary; and the instant the membrane bursts, it is followed by a delicious and rich flavour of pure honey.