Thursday, April 3, 2014

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Ants

     When I was a kid, a friend of mine, Dan, would occasionally eat ants.  Not as a meal or anything, but every so often.  Probably first as a dare, and then whenever we able to goad him into it.  As I recall, he chose the common, small black or brown ants you could find anywhere (at least in suburban NJ).  He reported that they mainly tasted lemon-y.  As a child, I was less experimental about trying different foods, so I didn’t join Dan in his snack.  But, about 30 years later, I was able to, thanks again to the folks at Think Geek, with their Edible Bugs Gift Pack (which for me was truly the gift that kept on giving).
     The particular ants I ate were weaver ants.  This is a species native to Asia and Australia.  They get their name due to their unusual nests.  Tree-dwellers, they use living leaves to form their homes.  Hundreds or thousands of them grab hold of a leaf, and push or pull it until it’s against another leaf.  Then, other ants carry over weaver ant larvae, and induce them to produce silk.  This silk is then used to cement the leaves together.  This they repeat several times, until an enclosed nest is created.  As the colony grows, more nests are constructed.  Even by ant standards, weaver colonies can be huge—up to 500,000 ants in some cases.
     As is typical for ants, weavers are extremely territorial, and vicious about defending their homes.  In addition to a bite that’s even painful to humans, weavers also sometimes spray caustic formic acid.  Incidentally, as many ants produce formic acid, this is most likely the sources of the “lemon-y” flavor that Dan detected in the ants he consumed.  In part because of this hyper aggression, weavers are sometimes used as living pesticide.  Because of their xenophobia, trees with weaver ants suffer less damage from plant eating animals.  And since weavers eat other insects and “honeydew” (which is a sugary liquid secreted by some sap eating insects, like scale insects, which are sometimes “milked” by ants, and other insects) these protectors don’t damage the trees themselves.  Therefore, orchard farmers will sometimes tolerate them, or even encourage them by stringing ropes between trees, for the weavers to travel by.  There is a downside to this though—beneficial animal action, like pollination, or seed dispersal from birds or mammals that eat fruit, is hampered by weaver ants.  But obviously for some fruit growers the advantages of having weaver ant tenants outweigh the disadvantages.
     As with the crickets, weaver ants are a fairly common food source in Thailand.  For pet birds, as bait for fishing, and for the Thai themselves.  Apparently there are even areas in Thailand where prized weaver larvae are twice as expensive as an equal weight of beef or pork!  The ants I ate were billed as “Queen Weaver Ants.”  I’m guessing the queens of weaver ants are bigger than the regular workers, as is the case with most social insects.  Unlike some of the other Gift Pack Bugs, which had exotic flavoring like wasabi, seaweed, or barbeque, the ants were only lightly oiled and salted.  The individual ants were about the size of peas, and rolled up into a tight ball.  The oil gave them a slightly moist texture.  They had a pleasant taste.  The level of saltiness was a perfect medium.  Enough to season the ants effectively, but not too much.  I had no problem finishing the small can, and I would eagerly try them again.  Also, they are high in protein and fiber, so health wise they’re a good choice, too.
     In closing, it’s clear that if my friend Dan ever decides to run for political office, he might need to pay hush money to me (and readers of this post).  Because “Anteater Dan,” whether represented as a person, or as the insectivore animal, would probably be too tempting for a political cartoonist to resist.

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