ants in hand

Spring weather came swooping in and whittled the snow away in just a matter of days. Before the snow was gone, I had taken my woodcutting tools into he woods for an hour or two of putting up firewood. After cutting a large windfall oak, I turned off the growling chain saw, took off my helmet and began the maul work of splitting the oak. In a short time I was hatless and into a rhythm.

As I worked my way through the increasingly larger rounds of oak, towards what had been the base of the tree, I paused, feeling the satisfaction, of watching the oak split into two pieces. As it flew apart, the soft snow on the ground became peppered with winter dormant carpenter ants that tumbled from their upended cold weather sanctuary. I set the maul down to cool off. The maul needed no cooling but I certainly did.

maul and ants

I leaned close to inspect the stilled insects. Not a movement from any of them. I felt a little guilty exposing them to winter. Tumbling out of their gallery, they would either die ofexposure or from foraging small birds, like chickadees and downy woodpeckers, that sometimes are attracted to the “thunks” of my rising and falling maul. They have learned that a pile of freshly split oak oftentimes reveals calories in the form of insects.

Feeling a slight pang of hunger, I reached over and took a good pinch of ants and without hesitation popped them into my mouth. When eating insects in a society that rarely intentionally eats these arthropods, it is best to not dilly dally and just go for it. The crunch, crunch, crunch of my molarsrendering these insects to a very quick death was followed but an explosion of flavor that is not unlike a powerful Sweet Tart candy.  The blended sour taste with the sweet flavor danced on my tongue and actually served as a rejuvenating break during my chores.

Carpenter ants are classified in the family of ants called Formiciidae. The origin of the family name comes from formic acid which, in my mini-dose, gave me the blast of “ultra-sweet-tartness.”

Formic acid plays an important role for the ant’s defense. It is an effective deterrent for aggressive threats to the ant. Some biologists wonder if the bird behavior known as “anting,” where the bird grasps ants in their beak and rub them all over their feathers, is an action that rubs formic acid on them to help keep parasites off the birds.


ants on oak chunk

Besides the jolt of surprising and energizing taste, I was ingesting a form of food that is energy and nutrient dense. Many insects are equal if not superior to conventional livestock, eggs and even milk in delivered energy and garnered nutrients.

Intentionally consuming insects this is abhorrent to our upstanding picnic practices. At the picnic table we often flutter our hands and fingers over heaping summer bowls of potato salads and other delectables to keep curious insects away from our outdoor feasts. Perhaps we should be attracting the fresh “toppings” to enhance our cuisine. But habits are hard to break and we are products of our upbringing.

Eating insects, known formally as entomophagy, is not a common practice in Western Society but a recent UN Report entitled Edible Insects Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security estimates that two billion people on the planet regularly eat nearly 2,000 species of  insects. The report’s Forward lays out the premise of the report.“It is widely accepted that by 2050 the world will host 9 billion people. To accomodate this number, current food production will need to almost double. Land is scarce and expanding the area devoted to farming is rarely a viable or sustainable option. Oceans are overfished and climate change and related water shortages could have profound implications for food production. To meet the food and nutrition challenges of today – there are nearly 1 billion chronically hungry people worldwide – and tomorrow, what we eat and how we produce it needs to be re-evaluated. Inefficiencies need to be rectified and food waste reduced. We need to find new ways of growing food.”

The word insect derives from the Latin word insectum, meaning “with a notched or divided body”, literally “cut into sections”, from the fact that insects’ bodies have three parts. (Head, Thorax and Abdomen) Given that these small livestock, are more efficient at creating protein than beef, with far less global impact on natural resources such as water and acreage required, we might do well to lean towards insectum. . . or more aptly put, “insect-Mmmmmmmm.”

According to the UN Report,the most commonly consumed insects globally are beetles (31%), caterpillars from butterflies and moths (18%), bees, wasps and ants (14%), grasshoppers, locusts and crickets (13%), cicadas, leafhoppers, planthoppers scale insects and true bugs (10%), termites (3%), dragonflies (3%), flies (2%) and all other orders (5%). 

With more than 12,500 species classified and more out there, ants are the most numerous insect group in the world.

World renowned biologist and author, E. O. Wilson, has spent over 60 years at Harvard University studying ants. He is fond of reminding students that ants work together, share food and send their elders into battle to protect their young. Furthermore, these amazing insects make up more than one quarter (25%) of the world’s insect biomass. And almost unbelievably, Wilson and his colleagues estimate the world’s ant population, estimated at one million trillion at any one moment weigh roughly the same as all human beings.  

In Minnesota the largest ant species are generally one of the several species of carpenter ants. Carpenter ants are so-called because of their habit of excavating wood to make their galleries and egg-laying chambers. These social insects DO NOT eat wood. They are primarily insect eaters.

We have found a few renegade carpenter ants that patrol our kitchen for bits of sweet syrup, jelly or honey. These innocent trespassers were likely carried in by us when we hauled in armloads of firewood. Once indoors, they warm up and awaken from their winter dormancy and begin to explore for food.

A couple hundred yards away from my wood cutting and ant-feasting is a wrecked birch tree that has been excavated by a pair of pileated woodpeckers all winter. Carpenter ants are essential to the survival of these largest of Minnesota woodpeckers. The long troughs carved out of standing trees are oftentimes near the base of the tree where the colony of ants tends to have their primary or parent colony. Outlying smaller colonies are called satellite nests.

For the time being the local pileated pair need not worry about the slow, two-legged anteater. He has the luxury of exercising his curiosity more than foraging for his food.

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