A species of Australian ant has been found to produce honey that has unique antimicrobial powers which kill bacteria and fungus species.

The study, conducted by scientists at the University of Sydney, is the first to investigate the medicinal benefits of ant honey. However, this is not an original discovery – in fact, Australian honeypot ants have been used in food and in medicine by First Nations people for thousands of years.

The Australian honeypot ant, Camponotus inflatus, is found in desert areas in Western Australia and the Northern Territory. The researchers hope that identifying the particular antimicrobial compounds in the ant honey could help to develop new antibiotics.

“I have long been fascinated by the honeypot ant and its amazing way of producing and storing honey,” said Andrew Dong, co-author of the research published in journal PeerJ. “Given the medicinal use of the honey by Indigenous people, I wondered if it might have unique antimicrobial characteristics.”

“Our people have been enjoying sweet honey ants for thousands of years,” said Danny Ulrich from the Tjupan language group, who helped the researchers track down the honeypot ants. “As for its medicinal use, we use it for sore throats and sometimes as a topical ointment to help keep infections at bay.”

Following the lead of Indigenous people, the scientists profiled the honey to find out its bacterial and fungal microbiome: the composition of good microbes that can tackle the bad ones.

They found that the honey’s microbiome is effective in inhibiting the growth of golden staph, a bacterium that can cause infections or even death if it enters the body through a cut.

The ants have also evolved so that their honey inhibits two fungal species, Aspergillus and Cryptococcus, which can also cause serious infections in people with suppressed immune systems.

One group of honeypot ants play a bizarre role in the wider colony. Underground worker ants, known as ‘rotunds’, are overfed by the other ants so that they are stuffed full of nectar and other sugary substances. Their abdomens become translucent and orange as they inflate with honey – growing to the size of small grapes.

When food options become scarce for the rest of the colony, these ants – immobilised by their size – become ‘vending machines’, regurgitating the honey for the other ants to enjoy on tap.

According to the researchers, their honey has a different medicinal mechanism to manuka honey, a dark honey produced by bees which pollinate manuka flowers which are native to New Zealand. Manuka honey is well known for its antimicrobial properties and can be used as a treatment for wounds and skin infections.