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Green Tree Ants – Fascinating and Tasty

Wildlife Photography with marysejansenart

Clever engineers and farmers with a lemony flavour

Green Tree Ants by Maryse Jansen
Green Tree Ants

‘Who would like to eat the bottom of an ant?’

‘Who would like to eat the bottom of an ant?’ …. silence in the group … ‘It tastes like lemon!’, adds our Aboriginal guide, in an attempt to make the idea more enticing. One hand shoots up, the hand of my 5 year old. The group regards the child with mixed emotions of admiration and empathizing chills, but she has made up her mind solid and steps forward as if eating the bottom of an ant is the most normal thing in the world.

And, actually it is not so abnormal as a bunch of western tourists might think. The Indigenous People of Australia have feasted on these Green Tree Ants as long as they can remember. You need to be a bit careful of their jaws, so do not try to put the whole ant in your mouth! Also, watch how you pick it up. When given the chance to bite you, they will take it and they have a fierce bite. On top of that they will spray acid on the bite site which will give it a painful sting. This acid comes from their abdomen and my child confirms that it tastes beautifully like lemon indeed.

Green Tree Ants Trio by Maryse Jansen
Green Tree Ants Trio

While this Bush Tucker Tour teaches us how to enjoy the lemony acid straight from the ant’s bottom, Aboriginal People also have found various other ways of consuming it. They catch the ants, add them to water and then leave them to ferment. This way they create a lemon flavoured drink that is used to relieve colds and coughs. Another way to use these medicinal properties is to crush the ants and rub them on the chest or inhale. It is also believed that this practice may help the milk flow in mothers.

Apart from the ants themselves, the white larvae can also be eaten or crushed – these will also produce a lemony flavour.

Green Tree Ants are Ingenious Nest Builders

You can find these ants in the tropics of northern Australia. It is many years later now and I am again visiting the tropics of north Queensland. During my walk I notice a lot of trees have patches of leaves clumped together and when I look closer I can see the Green Tree Ants crawling all over these sites. They are an arboreal species and these are their nests!

Green Tree Ant Nest
Green Tree Ant Nest

They have a very ingenious way of building these nests! Groups of worker ants pull leaves together, upon which the next group of workers arrives carrying larvae in their jaws. These larvae produce silk and the workers use this silk to weave the leaves together. This is why they are also sometimes referred to as Weaver Ants! It is an intricate process. The first group of workers holds the leaves in place, while the second group gently applies the tips of the abdomen of the larvae alternately along the edges of each leaf over and over again until the silk threads have secured it in place. Isn’t that fascinating!?

When a number of leaves have been woven together, a nest chamber has been created. A colony of ants may create a number of these to house their members. The chambers may be built in a single tree, but the colony can also expand to occupy multiple trees. I can see the trail of ants walking on a tree, connecting different chambers.

Take a closer look below, at this very large nest that I spotted during another trip, which was built in a palm tree. As the leaves are much thinner it would have been a massive amount of work to put this together! You can clearly see the white patches of silk that bind the leaves.

Green Tree Ant Nest in Palm by Maryse Jansen
Green Tree Ant Nest in Palm

A colony has only one queen and she will occupy one of the chambers. Her suite, of course, is fiercely protected. Other chambers will house larvae and pupae in different stages, or workers. Colonies can grow up to half a million ants!

Green Tree Ants obtain their food through hunting and farming techniques

To sustain themselves Green Tree Ants feed mainly on insects such as beetles, flies, bees, wasps and other ants. They use their strength in numbers, their strong bites and acid squirts to overpower their victims. If there is not enough food on their host trees the workers will travel to find food and take it back to the nest. Apart from attacking and overpowering smaller insects and spiders, they also take carcasses of larger animals such as small reptiles and birds.

Their other favourite food is honeydew. This substance is produced by certain caterpillars, aphids and other sap sucking insects. The clever ants actively protect these organisms so they can reap the sweet rewards. They have even been observed building them shelters. They are effectively running a honeydew farm!

It all shows their important part in the ecosystem. The ants offer certain species protection, including various species of Oak-blue butterflies which can only be found in parts of Australia where these ants are established. On the other hand, they offer their host trees protection from leaf eating insects, by feeding on them.

Join me on my walk in the in the tropical wetlands in the latest episode of ‘Come of a walk in the Australian Bush’ to meet the Green Tree Ants and many other fascinating creatures!

If you are interested in purchasing the featured image ‘Green Tree Ants’ or would like to see what it looks like on the various products, please head to my shop.

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