Australian honey ants have antimicrobial properties and may have medicinal applications

In a groundbreaking study published in the journal PeerJ, scientists have uncovered the hidden potential of Australian honey ants. These amazing insects produce a sweet nectar that has antimicrobial properties, which holds promise for medical applications. While this discovery may be new to the scientific community, it comes as no surprise to indigenous communities who have long used this honey for medicinal purposes. Once again, indigenous knowledge is proving invaluable in our quest for scientific advancement.

Led by Andrew Dong and Dr. Kenya Fernandes and supervised by Professor Dee Carter of the Carter Laboratory at the University of Sydney, the research team embarked on a journey to investigate the medicinal properties of ant honey.

The Australian honey ant inhabits desert areas, mainly in Western Australia and the Northern Territory. Colonies of these ants have a unique class of workers. Overfed on the nectar and sugar of their fellow ants, the ants expand their abdomen and fill it with honey, giving it an amazing translucent amber appearance. Honey-filled ants serve as a living storehouse of food, regurgitating honey to keep the colony alive when food is scarce.

For First Nations communities, honey ants have always been more than just a source of food. Danny Ulrich, a member of the Tjupan language group who leads tours of honey ant habitats in Kalgoorlie, explains the importance of these ants in their culture. “For our people, honey ants are not just a source of food. Digging them is a very enjoyable way of life and a way to bring the family together,” says Ulrich. “Our people have been enjoying the ants’ sweet honey for thousands of years. As for its medicinal uses, we use it for sore throats and sometimes as a topical ointment to keep infections at bay.”

Andrew Dong, interested in the unique way honey ant honey is produced and stored, wondered if it might have unusual antimicrobial properties due to its traditional medical use. Through comparative analysis, the research team found that honey ant honey has a distinct mechanism of action compared to manuka honey, known for its topical use to heal wounds and treat skin infections.

Dr. Fernandes explains, “Our study showed that ant honey has a specific action that distinguishes it from other types of honey. This discovery suggests that ant hemp honey may contain compounds with significant antimicrobial power. The identification of these compounds could be a starting point for the development of new and novel types of antibiotics.”

The traditional use of honey ants by First Nations has stood the test of time and their wisdom has now been validated by modern Western scientific methods. Professor Carter praises the unique antimicrobial properties of ant honey, stating, “If you take something that has been honed by evolution to work in nature and then apply it to human health, it’s a great way to develop therapeutic strategies.”

The implications for human health are significant. The antimicrobial properties of honey ants’ honey hold promise for the development of new antibiotics and therapeutic strategies. As we continue to unlock the secrets of nature, we must recognize and respect the wisdom of indigenous peoples whose knowledge has guided us for millennia.

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