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Indigenous Australian Ant Honey Shows Unique Anti-Microbial Properties, Study Finds

Scientists discover distinct mechanism of action in ant honey, potential for new antibiotics

Medicinal properties of ant honey – long recognized by indigenous Australians – have finally been acknowledged by mainstream science.

The sweet substance carries strong anti-microbial properties, according to a new study.

Now scientists have discovered the honey possesses “unique” anti-microbial activity against bacteria and fungi.

They confirmed that it has a quite different mechanism of action compared with Manuka honey, which is well established as a topical treatment for wounds and skin infections.

A research team from the University of Sydney’s Carter Lab, led by Professor Dee Carter, studied the Australian honeypot ant, Camponotus inflatus.

The species is found throughout desert areas, mainly in Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

Among their colonies are a class of overfed workers that are stuffed with nectar and sugary substances by other worker ants, causing their abdomens to inflate with honey and take on a translucent, amber appearance.

These ants effectively become immobile “vending machines” for their colony, regurgitating honey when other food is scarce.

Australian honeypot ants (Camponotus inflatus), REPLETES AND WORKERS IN STORAGE CHAMBER. Amadeus Basin, Northern Territory, Australia. Indigenous Australians have been using ant honey for generations to treat colds and sore throats, and as an ointment. PHOTO BY AUSCAPE/GETTY IMAGES 

Danny Ulrich, from the Tjupan language group who runs honeypot ant tours in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, helped the researchers track down specimens for the study.

The researchers said their study marks the first time that ant honey has been investigated for its medicinal properties.

Andrew Dong, of the Carter Lab team, said: “I have long been fascinated by the honeypot ant and its amazing way of producing and storing honey.

“Given the medicinal use of the honey by Indigenous people, I wondered if it might have unique antimicrobial characteristics.”

Dr. Kenya Fernandes, also of the Carter Lab team said: “Our research shows that honeypot ant honey possesses a distinctive effect that sets it apart from other types of honey.

“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 team found that ant’s honey is effective against Staphylococcus aureus, a bacterium commonly known as golden staph.

The bacteria colonize on the skin and nose of people, but if they enter through a cut, they can cause infection such as boils and sores and, in serious cases, can even prove fatal.

The Carter Lab team’s findings, published in the journal PeerJ, also show that ant honey is potent against two species of fungi, Aspergillus and Cryptococcus.

Both fungi can be found in soil and the ability to inhibit them probably evolved to prevent ant colonies from being invaded by fungi. The fungi can also cause serious infection in people with suppressed immune systems.

“This study demonstrates that honeypot ant honey has unique antimicrobial characteristics that validate its therapeutic use by Indigenous peoples,” Carter said.

“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.”


Produced in association with SWNS Talker

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