Honey produced by an Australian ant, well known to traditional owners, carries powerful medicinal properties that could be used to fight harmful bacteria and fungi.
The honeypot ant, found in the deserts of Western Australia and the Northern Territory, produces honey containing unique antimicrobial properties, according to researchers from Sydney University.
Of particular interest to researchers were a class of overfed ants "stuffed with nectar and sugary substances by other worker ants", causing their abdomens to inflate with honey, which they regurgitate when other food options are scarce.
First Nations people have used the crawling critters medicinally for thousands of years, as well as for a sweet treat.
"We use it for sore throats and sometimes as a topical ointment to help keep infections at bay," said Danny Ulrich, from the Tjupan language group.
The academics relied on Mr Ulrich and his family to source the ants.
"You wouldn't know they're there," he said.
"It's like a lot of bush foods in desert areas - unless you know they're there, you just walk right by."
Researchers have since confirmed the science behind its therapeutic use, finding the ants' honey to be effective against a potentially deadly bacterium commonly known as golden staph, and two species of fungi found in soil.
The staphylococcus aureus bacterium can cause infection, or in serious cases death, if it enters through a cut in the skin.
The aspergillus and cryptococcus fungi can also cause serious infection in people with suppressed immune systems.
Sydney University researcher Dr Kenya Fernandes said the ants' honey possesses distinctive qualities that set it apart from other types such as manuka honey, a well-established topical treatment for wounds and skin infections.
"This discovery means that honeypot ant honey could contain compounds with substantial antimicrobial power," she said.
"Identifying these could provide us with starting points for developing new and different types of antibiotics."
Professor Dee Carter, from the university's School of Life and Environmental Sciences and the Sydney Institute for Infectious Diseases, said the team is excited to apply the findings to medicine.
"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," Prof Carter said.
Mr Ulrich and his family were happy to help this particular research group, but he has concerns about traditional medicines being commercialised.
"Honey ants are a resource that could very easily be over-exploited," he told AAP.
"If scientists want to get more samples they need to go to the local traditional owners, who have the knowledge of the area to go and collect them.
"Aboriginal people are not going to let them wipe out a whole nest area just for the sake of research, because we don't do that.
"We harvest sustainably and there's no way that would leave the colony short."
Mr Ulrich has never dug for honeypot ants himself because in Tjupan culture it's a role performed by women.
Aboriginal people have been eating the ants for thousands of years.
For a while Mr Ulrich's family was supplying honeypot ants to high-end Melbourne restaurant Attica, but problems transporting them from WA meant they are no longer on the menu.
He believes there is a delicate balance between sharing knowledge about traditional medicines and foods and appropriate commercialisation, which needs to ensure Aboriginal people benefit.
"There's a global push to eat insects - I saw a YouTube video with Angelina Jolie frying up tarantulas with her kids and munching away on them," Mr Ulrich said.
"But for us the honey ants are a sweet treat, it's not something we go and get all the time just for the sake of harvesting them."
Australian Associated Press
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