A colony of Australian honeypot ants. [Credit: Danny Ulrich]
The scientists have confirmed that ant honey has a quite different mechanism of action compared with Manuka honey, which is well established as a topical treatment for wounds and skin infections.
“Our research shows that honeypot ant honey possesses a distinctive effect that sets it apart from other types of honey,” Dr Fernandes said.
“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.”
Honeypot ants have been used medicinally by First Nations people for thousands of years, including for the treatment of colds and sore throats. But now Western science is catching up with their traditions.
“This study demonstrates that honeypot ant honey has unique antimicrobial characteristics that validate its therapeutic use by Indigenous peoples,” Professor 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.”
The researchers found the ant’s honey is effective against Staphylococcus aureus, a bacterium commonly known as golden staph. The bacteria colonise on the skin and nose of people, but if they enter through a cut, they can cause infection such as boils and sores or, in serious cases, death.
They also found ant honey is potent against two species of fungi, Aspergillus and Cryptococcus. Both fungi can be found in soil and this ability to inhibit them probably evolved to prevent ant colonies from being invaded by fungi. These fungi can also cause serious infection in people with suppressed immune systems.