Last updated 31/12/2018
If you’ve wondered around the bush in Northern Australia then you’ve probably bumped into these aggressive little guys. Their common name is green ant, green tree ant or weaver ant, scientific name Oecophylla smaragdina, and they’re distributed across the top end of Australia through open woodland. You’ll see them busily crawling over branches and through the bush. I wondered what the nests were when first coming to the top end and was surprised to find out they were ants nests. The ants build their nests in trees by folding or weaving green living leaves and gluing them together using larval silk to form a cluster about the size between a human fist and a human head. They are highly aggressive and will attack anyone approaching or interfering with their nest. Their eyesight is good, as evidenced by their instant rearing onto hind legs with mandible (pinchers) aggressively in the air whenever approached. They do not have a sting but can inflict a painful bite with their pinchers, followed by a squirt of acid for added pain. Their bodies are orange in colour, with a bright translucent green abdomen (actually called the gaster).
These ants display incredible team work and cooperation when building a nest. First the workers spread out to find a suitable nest location. They survey various leaves, attempting to bend them over, selecting the location in an area of leaves they find suitable for nest making. Once an area is selected, the rest of the ants in the colony meet at that location to join the effort. To bend a leaf, an array of workers line up along the edge of the leaf whilst grasping with their pinchers, working together to tease the leaf over. Once correctly orientated, the workers hold the leaf in position, remaining motionless whilst maintaining a grasp on the leaf. During this time a different group of workers are gluing the leaf into position using larval silk so that it will stay once released by the grasping ants. The ants grab a larvae, bring it to the gluing site and stimulate it into silk production by stroking. When a span between two leaves is beyond the reach of a single ant, workers form chains with their bodies. It takes around a day to build a typical nest. As the living leaves die off or the nests become damaged by storms, new nests are built to take its place.
The abdomen of green ants can be eaten. Simply pick up a living ant between fingertips and bite off the green abdomen. The taste is impressive for such a small item. You get a powerful lemon flavoured burst. Not suitable for a meal due to the small size, the abdomen of green ants is more like a breath mint. The entire ant can be eaten too, but usually not whilst living, unless you want them to pinch your tongue and mouth.
The larvae are edible and can be found within the nests. Ripping apart a nest will almost guarantee being attacked by thousands of very annoyed biting ants. The reward is maybe a few spoons full of protein rich larvae, with a taste akin to lemon flavoured pus. I have only tried a few raw. I imagine, like practically any protein, they would be quite tasty when fried up.
Some places in South East Asia collect the ant larvae in bulk as a source of food. Some places even consider it a delicacy and have it on sale at markets, costing more than normal meat.
The easiest way to harvest the larvae is to cut down a complete nest and drown the whole thing in a bucket of water. Expect a few hundred ant bites and thousands of angry ants defending the nest to the death.
Green ants can also be used to make a lemon drink. Dunk the nest in some water, mush it around a bit, and then scoop it all out and you’re left with a bush lemon drink.
Because their diets consist mainly of small insects, green ants are useful for pest control. They can help protect crops and trees from plant eating insects. They convert the protein of those pesky plant eating insects into tasty larvae which can be harvested and eaten. A double win. Useful ants.