Why Are Ants Spicy?

There is a growing number of people that consider insects to be the food of the future. After all, there is a basically never-ending supply of them! Therefore, it is definitely not too far-fetched to think about the taste these tiny omnipresent creatures might have.

Of course, there are also other reasons for thinking about this – maybe an ant has crawled into your mouth while you were sleeping. Maybe you were just an especially culinary-curious child and are still pondering what you found out all these years ago. No matter how it came to be, you have eaten an ant and are wondering:

Why are ants spicy? Ants are spicy because they contain formic acid. This colorless liquid is made of carbon monoxide, sodium chloride, and sulfuric acid and is used by ants for defending themselves by stinging predators or spraying their acid at them.  

Digesting formic acid is not dangerous since ants are pretty small, so you most likely never come in contact with a highly concentrated dose of formic acid. In its concentrated form, formic acid will irritate your skin.

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Aside from being present in some insects and plants, it can also be produced artificially and it has a variety of uses. It has preservative and antibacterial functions and as such is often used to spray livestock feed like hay to slow down the decay processes and keep it fresh and nutritious for a longer amount of time.

Beekeepers can use it to protect their hive against certain mites. It has also applications totally unrelated to dealing with animals – for example, it is an ingredient of some household limescale removers and it helps to process organic latex into raw rubber.

Whenever humans use formic acid, they utilize artificially produced acid – getting this product from ants would definitely not be worth the effort!

The first time formic acid was extracted from ants was in the 17th century, 1671, to be specific. The English naturalist John Ray distilled the crushed bodies of dead ants to acquire the acid that was inside them.

You can imagine how many ants would have to be used to get at the amount of acid necessary for industrial uses. The name the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) uses for this acid nowadays is methanoic acid. 

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Do All Ants Have Formic Acid? 

Ants are known for their bites that can turn any picnic into an itchy situation pretty quickly. There even has been a petition in 2016 to change the name of fire ants to “spicy boys” – a name that is a bit ironic, since in most species only female ants have a stinger! 

While ants contain all sorts of venom, formic acid with the chemical formula CH2O2 is only found in ants from the subfamily Formicinae. Members of this subfamily have a so-called acidopore at the tip of their abdomen which releases a spray of formic acid when attacked.

There are more than 3000 species of Formicinae, among these wood ants and yellow crazy ants. 


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Are There Other Animals With Formic Acid? 

Yes! Even though formic acid is named after ants (the Latin word for ant being “formica”), it refers to all acid with the same chemical formula, no matter whether it comes from an ant, another animal, or a plant. Stingless bees of the Oxytrigona have formic acids. Formic acid is also the reason for the itching and burning sensation when you come in contact with stinging nettles. 

Are Ant Bites Dangerous? 

Most ant bites or stings are not dangerous to humans. The mandibles of ants are usually too small and weak to do significant damage to human skin and the amount and concentration of their venom are also not very strong.

Some species, like fire ants or carpenter ants, though, have a bite that is immediately painful and that can cause symptoms like redness, itching, and swelling. Applying a cool compress after the area has been washed will relieve these symptoms. 

Of course, there is always the danger of an allergic reaction. If you or your child have been bitten or stung by an ant and are feeling unwell or in pain, it is always better to be safe than sorry and seek out the opinion of a doctor! 

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