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Curious Kids: how do ants make their own medicine?

Not many people realise ants can make their own medicine. Flickr/Pimthida, CC BY-SA

This is an article from Curious Kids, a series for children. The Conversation is asking kids to send in questions they’d like an expert to answer. All questions are welcome: find out how to enter at the bottom. You might also like the podcast Imagine This, a co-production between ABC KIDS listen and The Conversation, based on Curious Kids.

How do ants make their own medicine? Thank you. – Anuva, age 5, Montreal.

Wow, what a wonderful question!

Ants are amazing animals. Even though they have brains smaller than a grain of sand, they know how to use chemicals in their environment to make themselves feel better when they are ill.

Read more: Curious Kids: Why do flies vomit on their food?

How ants get sick

If an ant touches the spores (which are like seeds) of a fungus called Beauveria bassiana the fungus begins to grow inside their bodies. Soon, they grow very sick.

This moth got very sick and died because of a fungus called Beauveria bassiana, which is the white stuff. flickr/MK - fotky, CC BY

Ants can cure themselves by drinking small amounts of a chemical that kills the fungus. The chemical is called hydrogen peroxide.

Hydrogen peroxide is found in two things many ants love to eat: nectar and honey dew. Nectar comes from flowers and honeydew is a sweet liquid made by tiny insects called aphids. Ants even like to collect aphids and keep them in little aphid farms.

These ants are tending to their aphids in their aphid farm. Flickr/Judy Gallagher, CC BY

Scientists think sick ants in nature sometimes choose to drink nectar or honeydew that contains higher amounts of hydrogen peroxide.

A science experiment

You might be wondering how scientists found out that ants can cure themselves by drinking hydrogen peroxide. After all, it is very hard to watch what happens inside a wild ant nest.

The scientists did a very clever experiment where they gave sick ants and healthy ants a choice between honey water that contained hydrogen peroxide and plain honey water.

Sick ants preferred to drink honey water mixed with hydrogen peroxide while healthy ants preferred to drink plain honey water. Sick ants that drank the hydrogen peroxide were more likely to get better than those that drank plain honey water.

This experiment showed that sick ants could choose to eat foods that contained chemicals that helped them fight off the infection.

Leaf medicine for food fungus

Leafcutter ants are another type of ant that can use medicine to treat diseases. Leafcutter ants are common in South American jungles, where they can be seen marching in long lines, carrying leaves over their heads like little green umbrellas.

Here are some leafcutter ants. Flickr/lana.japan, CC BY

The ants do not eat the leaves. Instead, they mash them up into a paste and use them to feed a special fungus they keep in little gardens. Fungus gardens are very important to the ant colony as they provide almost all of the colony’s food.

Sometimes the fungus gardens get sick; when this happens, gardener ants get rid of the sickness using a special chemical called an “antibiotic”. Antibiotics work by killing the germs that make animals (including humans) sick.

Of course, leafcutter ants can’t just walk to the doctor’s office or chemist to get their antibiotics. Instead, they grow a special type of bacteria on their bodies. The bacteria makes the antibiotic that cures the fungus when it gets sick. The friendly, antibiotic-making bacteria are white, so gardener ants look as though they have been sprinkled with white powder.

Next time you are sick, just think of the ants and their amazing ant-ibiotics!

Read more: Curious Kids: Where do flies sleep?

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