How to Lick an Ant in Australia
How To: The Oecophylla smaragdina packs a flavorful punch. Kristin Luna explains how to get a taste.
06.19.09 | 10:55 AM ET
The situation: You’re on a nature walk along Fitzroy Island, situated along Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, when your guide plucks an ant from a tree and puts it to his lips, as if preparing to give it a big ol’ kiss. He doesn’t do that, but rather, rests the ant’s rear end on his tongue and licks it. He asks you to do the same—after procuring a second ant; no one likes a double-dipper, after all—and you pause. Is he serious? Joking? Trying to get the best of a naive tourist?
The backstory: Your guide is not yanking your chain. This arboreal insect—the weaver (Oecophylla smaragdina), commonly known as the green ant—has long been an important part of Aboriginal culture, and its excretions are safe for human consumption. Most tribes use the weaver ant for a range of purposes, from battling the common cold to serving as a cordial.
The juices: Weaver ants, which possess a bit of a sweet tooth, feed off the liquid left behind by caterpillars. To extract the liquid from the weavers, the Aborigines boil their nests in water and strain the ants through a coconut fiber. The remaining liquid is high in ascorbic acid containing a potent dose of vitamin C.
While the nests boil, the Aborigines place their faces over the water and inhale the vapor the nests emit. The ants can also be crushed and rubbed directly on the skin. Curing ailments isn’t the only purpose the ants serve: A new mother, for example, might rub the nest to her chest, the ants’ bites on her breasts producing milk as a result.
The weaver is no longer as necessary for remedial purposes, though it’s still used by tribes. For travelers, the licking of the ant is “more for a bit of fun, to get that shock of taste on your tongue,” says Aussie adventure guide Jeff Carter with Raging Thunder.
The taste: Dare I say tasty? With a citrus-y flavor the liquid is shockingly delicious: tangy with a bitter aftertaste, not unlike Limoncello. Imagine fusing two childhood treats, the Warhead and a Lemon Drop, and voila, you have the weaver ant cocktail.
Hot spots: Tropical climates, which encompass much of Australia’s coastline. From Rockhampton, up to the Northern Territory, down to Broome in the west and on many of the Great Barrier Reef’s more forested isles, you’ll find colonies.
In areas of Southeast Asia, particularly Thailand and the Philippines, weaver ant pupae are harvested and sold in food markets. For two millennia, the Chinese have used the ants as a natural insecticide, cashing in on their gluttonous appetites by strategically planting nests in citrus orchards where other pests run rampant. Additional places the weavers nest: the Solomon Islands, southern India and sub-Saharan Africa.
Ant handling: Delicately grasp the ant by its middle and hold the rear end toward you, the visible green droplet angled at your tongue. A little nip on the tongue by a weaver ant won’t hurt too much, but you still want to safeguard against the possibility of a bite. Make sure its pinchers are pointed in the opposite direction from your mouth. Extend your tongue and dab gently until you feel a droplet erupt in your mouth.
Food for thought: In some parts of the world, such as Asia, India and Africa, the weaver ant is red, not green, sometimes even mistaken for a fire ant (though fire ants usually live in hills on the ground, while weavers are always found in tree nests). Consult a trustworthy local guide before doing something you might regret—or risk allowing the wrong ant to have its bittersweet revenge.