BUGGED REMEDY Take a handful of these and call your doctor in the morning. That’s been the advice of some Chinese healers who have been dispensing these “medicinal” ants for patients with serious aches and other conditions. Zhi-Hong Jiang

Here’s a novel health food I learned about this morning—one that could be free for the gleaning right outside your front door (especially if you live in China). Warning: You have to be quick or it’ll get away.

Traditional Chinese Medicine relies on a broad range of natural products, including many that Westerners would ordinarily shy away from: molds, ground rhino horn, bear bile, and ants. The last has been prescribed to treat rheumatoid arthritis and hepatitis. Now, Asian researchers have identified two novel compounds in “medicinal” ants that resemble therapeutic agents present in species of several types of plants.

Zhi-Hong Jiang of Hong Kong Baptist University headed a team of chemists that purchased 2 kilograms of Polyrhacis lamellidens Smith, the ant species that has typically been dispensed by Chinese folk healers. In their case, however, the ants came from an insect-supply house in Nanjing. A colleague at the Chinese Academy of Forestry in Beijing was consulted to confirm that the purchased bugs belonged to the appropriate species. Then the chemists used solvents to extract various chemicals from their ants.

Earlier work by these chemists showed that treating people with ants wasn’t necessarily bunk. They published data three years ago demonstrating that one particular extract of ant chemicals performed fairly well at killing pain and inflammation. However, the extract contained a mix of chemicals, so no one knew which of them might be beneficial.

Now, the group has purified major constituents of the extract to home in on the likely therapeutic ingredients. In an upcoming issue of the Journal of Natural Products, they describe two novel chemicals, called lactones, that look suspiciously like compounds found in the mint family (Lamiaceae), the laurel family (Lauraceae), and the family of plants that includes bladdernut trees (Staphyleaceae). That’s interesting, Jiang’s team says, because research by others has indicated that the new lactones’ chemical cousins in plants show promise in treating the inflammation that underlies arthritis and many other conditions.

The ants that Jiang’s group worked with can be found scurrying across mainland China’s landscape. They’re not the same species bustling around sidewalks and lawns in Utah and Florida. On the other hand, since Americans don’t consume ants for nutrition, much less medicine, there’s been no reason to explore whether American ants produce compounds with any medicinal properties.

I think there should be a crash program to find out if they do. It would be nice to think that after a day of gardening, I might head off some aches and pains by scooping up a bunch of ants, mashing them under my forefinger (or maybe in a mortar, if I get enough), and then spreading them on a cracker along with peanut butter. It would give the legume spread some crunch, extra protein, a dash of minerals—and an analgesic punch. Take that, ibuprofen!

Of course, you’d have to make sure the bugs were clean. Not just dirt-free, but free of potentially toxic contaminants as well. Which should be less of an issue soon in much of Canada.

Quebec outlawed “cosmetic” use of pesticides several years ago. That means they can’t be applied to keep lawns weedfree or to keep little bugs from taking a nip out of your ornamental shrubs. Yesterday Ontario officials celebrated Earth Day by proposing a similar ban to be implemented throughout their province by some time next year. Some 55 municipalities in Canada outside of Quebec have already passed such a ban.

According to a Canadian Press report of the proposal, this would “be the toughest such legislation in North America.”

Yesterday, Home Depot announced it will do its part to help by removing traditional bug- and weed killers from its shelves throughout Canada by year end.

The phase-out will occur much sooner—by the end of June—in the 62 stores serving Canadian towns that prohibit use of conventional pesticides, a Home Depot spokesperson told me. Indeed, she explained, while many communities, including Toronto, have outlawed the use of those chemicals, their sales remain legal.

This company—a major retailer of lawn and garden chemicals in Canada—has decided it will just no longer contribute to the risk they these chemicals might be used inappropriately. The 60 products affected include herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, slug baits, moss-control products, and lawn fertilizers with weed control. More than 50 natural “environmentally friendly” alternatives will be available to take their place.

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the editor of Science News for Students, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer.

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