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Ant honey may hold the secret for powerful new antibiotics

In a new study published in PeerJ, scientists have revealed a long-held secret from Australia’s deserts: the sweet nectar produced by the honeypot ant harbors antimicrobial properties that could prove invaluable in medicinal applications. 

This revelation is less of a surprise for the First Nations communities, who have been utilizing this honey for its therapeutic properties for thousands of years. Once again,  Indigenous knowledge is proving invaluable in our continued scientific advancements.

The research team was led by Andrew Dong and Dr. Kenya Fernandes, who operate under the guidance of Professor Dee Carter at the University of Sydney’s Carter Lab, which is a part of the Sydney Institute for Infectious Diseases.

Honeypot ants

The Australian honeypot ant, the subject of the research, thrives in desert areas primarily in Western Australia and the Northern Territory. The colonies of these ants comprise a unique class of workers. 

Honeypot ants are overfed with nectar and sugary substances by their colleagues, causing their abdomens to expand and brim with honey, lending them a striking, translucent amber appearance. These engorged ants act as living food storage, providing sustenance to their colony by regurgitating the stored honey when alternative food sources are in short supply.

More than just a source of food 

Danny Ulrich, from the Tjupan language group who conducts honeypot ant tours in Kalgoorlie, assisted the researchers in collecting specimens for the study. He described the honey ants as being more than a mere food source for his community.

“For our people, honey ants are more than just a food source. Digging for them is a very enjoyable way of life, and a way of bringing the family together,” said Ulrich. “Our people have been enjoying sweet honey ants for thousands of years. As for its medicinal use, we use it for sore throats and sometimes as a topical ointment to help keep infections at bay.”

Unique medicinal properties 

This study marks a pioneering effort in scrutinizing the medicinal properties of ant honey. Andrew Dong expressed his fascination with the honeypot ant and its extraordinary method of producing and storing honey: “Given the medicinal use of the honey by Indigenous people, I wondered if it might have unique antimicrobial characteristics.” 

In a comparative analysis, the team discovered that the ant honey had a distinct mechanism of action relative to Manuka honey. This is widely recognized for its topical use in treating wounds and skin infections. 

“Our research shows that honeypot ant honey possesses a distinctive effect that sets it apart from other types of honey,” said Dr. Fernandes. “This discovery means that honeypot ant honey could contain compounds with substantial antimicrobial power; identifying these could provide us with starting points for developing new and different types of antibiotics.”

The traditional medicinal use of honeypot ants by First Nations people has stood the test of time, with their wisdom now being corroborated by contemporary Western scientific methods. 

Implications for human health

Professor Carter praised the unique antimicrobial characteristics of honeypot ant honey, stating, “Taking something that has been honed by evolution to work in nature and then applying this to human health is a great way to come up with therapeutic strategies.”

Crucially, the research found the ant’s honey to be effective against Staphylococcus aureus, colloquially known as golden staph. This bacterium tends to colonize human skin and noses but can cause potentially fatal infections such as boils and sores when they infiltrate the body through cuts. 

Furthermore, the ant honey demonstrated potency against two species of fungi, Aspergillus and Cryptococcus, typically found in the soil. This antimicrobial attribute likely evolved to prevent fungal invasion of the ant colonies and has implications for human health, particularly in combating infections in immunocompromised individuals.

More about Indigenous medicine 

Indigenous medicine, also known as traditional or folk medicine, refers to the knowledge, skills, and practices of indigenous peoples around the world in maintaining their health and treating, diagnosing, or preventing illnesses. This form of healthcare has been passed down through generations and is often deeply tied to spiritual beliefs, rituals, and a connection with the natural environment.

Indigenous medicine encompasses a wide variety of practices, which vary greatly among different cultures and regions. These may include the use of herbs, minerals, animal parts, incantations, rituals, physical therapies (like massage or acupuncture), and other methods thought to have healing properties. 

The underlying philosophy of many indigenous medical systems is holistic, often considering the individual’s mind, body, and spirit, as well as the wider community and environment.

Here are a few examples:


A 5,000-year-old system of natural healing that has its origins in the Vedic culture of India. It is based on the principle of maintaining balance in the body’s three doshas: Vata, Pitta, and Kapha.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)

This holistic system of health and healing uses approaches such as acupuncture, tai chi, herbal products, and nutrition to stimulate the body’s healing processes.

Native American Medicine

This traditional healing practice involves the use of plants and herbs, but also considers the individual’s spirit and emotions. Healing rituals often involve the community and can include song, dance, and prayer.

Aboriginal Bush Medicine (Australia)

This form of traditional medicine makes use of a wide array of native plants for healing and medicinal purposes.

It is important to note that while Indigenous medicine has been effective for many generations, its effectiveness can be variable and is often not regulated in the same way as modern medicine. 


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