The honey ant had its moment in the spotlight recently when René Redzepi posted a photo of the insect on his Instagram account, writing that it was the best thing he ate in 2017. It’s a big call considering that the Danish chef and co-owner of Noma, named best restaurant in the world four times, is known to work only with the best ingredients.
So what are honey ants?
Honey ants, sometimes called honeypot ants, are found in a few arid areas of the world, including Mexico (where Noma had a pop-up restaurant in 2017) and Australia.
They are not a separate ant species, but rather a role taken by ants of different species. In the book On Eating Insects, Joshua Evans explains that they “are designated worker ants that are fed nectar in times of plenty until their abdomens engorge and they become living larders. In times of scarcity, the workers induce them to regurgitate some of the concentrated energy stored in their swollen bodies.”
The honey ant had its moment when René Redzepi posted a photo of the insect on his Instagram account, writing that it was the best thing he ate in 2017.
In Australia, they’re mainly found in desert areas of the Northern Territory and Western Australia, and Indigenous people were eating them long before they received any famous chef’s attention. The community of Papunya, in the Northern Territory, is even named after a honey ant dreaming.
Digging for honey ants has been a big part of sisters Edie Ulrich and Marjorie Stubbs’s life since they were children. The Tjupan women, both artists, live in Western Australia’s Goldfields.
“Mum and Nana Daisy used to take us out all the time. During school holidays, it was a big pastime going out bush and looking for the honey ants with the family,” Ulrich tells SBS. It’s a tradition that the women have maintained, still going to dig for honey ants on weekends with their children and grandchildren.
When they go out in the bush, the sisters know exactly what to do. They look for the worker ants, the one feeding the honey ants, at the base of mulga trees. Then, they follow them to their nest and start digging using a special technique to get to the chambers where the honey ants live. The whole operation takes several hours.
"When we’re out bush, gathering the honey ants, it’s natural to start talking language."
“It’s about getting together as a family. Most often than not, everybody comes out and when we sit around that hole, digging, we end up talking language. We don’t do it so much when we’re in town. When we’re out bush, gathering the honey ants, it’s natural to start talking language,” says Ulrich, who is, with her sister, one of the last fluent speakers of the Tjupan language.
Once they finally reach the ants, they have to be careful not to break them. “When you first put them into your mouth, you hold them, and when you pop it, it has a tang, it’s bitter and sweet. The bitterness is lovely,” says Stubbs.
Everybody who goes out for the digging gets a taste, and they sometimes bring back a few honey ants in a container to eat later at home. “It tastes like the honey you've got at home, but I reckon the honey from honey ants is sweeter. There’s a couple of different tastes; it depends on the sort of flowers they've been eating,” says Ulrich. “It’s a delicacy.”
Chefs are taking an interest
Paul Iskov, who runs Fervor, a roaming restaurant focusing on native produce, is one of the few chefs in the world who has used honey ants in his dishes.
"When you first put them into your mouth, you hold them, and when you pop it, it has a tang, it’s bitter and sweet. The bitterness is lovely."
“It’s a sweet, floral kind of flavour. All the ants differ in the flavour and colour of the nectar,” he tells SBS Food. “You eat the abdomen and it's the best honey you’ve ever tasted. It’s quite complex, you might get hints of honeydew or melon-y flavours through that sweet nectar. It’s incredible.”
He likes to keep things simple by sprinkling the ants on desserts, such as a honey ice cream with wattleseed and candied sandalwood nuts.
Iskov works with traditional owners to source native produce; for the honey ants, Ulrich and Stubbs take him out bush to get them. “It's a real treat that we look forward to every year,” he says.