Some ants are spicy due to the formic acid they produce. This formic acid reacts with the tissues and receptors in the mouth to produce a burning sensation which we describe as spiciness.
In this article we’ll learn more about why ants are spicy as we discuss what formic acid is, if it’s safe for ingestion, why ants have formic acid, and if all ants have them. We’ll also look into why eating ants burn and what they actually taste like.
What Is Formic Acid?
Formic acid, otherwise known as methanoic acid is the simplest carboxylic acid with the chemical formula HCOOH. It’s a colorless liquid with a pungent odor found in the stings and bites of insects including bees and ants.
The name formic acid comes from the word formica, the latin word for ant. This name refers to the early isolation of the acid in 1671 by the English naturalist John Ray who isolated the acid through the distillation of a large number of dead ants.
From then formic acid has been synthesized and it is now used as a preservative and antibacterial in livestock feed and for processing in leather and textile industries.
Is Formic Acid Safe to Ingest?
Ingestion of formic acid can be dangerous depending on concentration. The ingestion of concentrated formic acid can result in burns to the mouth, throat and stomach, drooling, difficulty swallowing and vomiting. Severe poisoning may also lead to shock, organ damage, and sometimes death.
With all that said, apart from possibly causing allergic reactions, ingesting formic in lower concentrations such as in the case of eating ants, is often not harmful. In fact, formic acid is said to provide ants with a pleasant fruity taste that many people enjoy.
Why Do Ants Have Formic Acid?
Ants produce formic acid for both attacking and defensive purposes. For example, ants may spray or inject formic acid with their stings to subdue their victims. At the same time, they also spray formic acid to deter predators.
Some ants also use formic acid to disinfect or detoxify themselves. For instance, tawny crazy ants have been shown to detoxify fire ant venom by applying formic acid to their cuticles.
Studies have also shown that some ants swallow formic acid to kill harmful, disease-causing bacteria from food.
Do All Ants Have Formic Acid?
Not all ants have formic acid. Formic acid is limited to members of the subfamily Formicinae, a group of ants including: wood ants (Formica), carpenter ants (Camponotus), weaver ants (Oecophylla), and honeypot ants (Myrmecocystus). Members of this subfamily have acidopores, a round orifice where formic acid is formed, on the end of their abdomens.
Why Does Eating Ants Burn?
Eating ants burn because of the formic acid they release. This formic acid reacts with the tissues and receptors in the mouth to produce a burning sensation which is why ants are described as spicy.
What Do Ants Taste Like?
Contrary to popular belief, spiciness isn’t actually a taste but is instead a pain sensation characterized by a hot or burning feeling. Therefore, ants technically don’t taste spicy.
But if spicy is not a taste, then what do ants actually taste like? Well, formic acid itself tastes sour and as such, ants that produce formic acid also taste sour or citrusy.
However, ants may also taste different depending on the species,their diet, and how they’re prepared. For example, weaver ants are known to produce a sweet fruity taste while honey ants may taste sweet or sour depending on the nectar that they feed on. Leaf-cutter ants on the other hand, also taste different as they produce a smoky, bacon-like taste when roasted.
Are Ants Edible?
Yes, ants are edible and they are in fact, eaten by communities in many parts of the world. For these communities, ants are accessible and nutritious food eaten for a variety of reasons including taste, nutrition, and even medicinal use.
For example, red weaver ants have been shown to have antimicrobial properties and are consumed in certain communities to help cure several diseases. Also, in some countries, ants are considered as a sustainable and environmentally friendly alternative to animal-based protein.
Summary: Why Are Ants Spicy?
To summarize, some ants are spicy due to formic acid, a colorless liquid with a pungent odor produced by ants of the subfamily Formicinae. This formic acid, while not necessarily harmful in small concentrations, remains effective enough to produce a chemical reaction and cause the burning sensation which characterizes ants as spicy.
As far as actual taste goes, ants are usually sour or citrusy due to the same formic acid, but they may also taste depending on their diet and how they’re prepared. Apart from being sour, some ants have been described as sweet and even bacon-like.