While no one knows how many ants there are in the world, conservative estimates suggest that we’re sharing our planet with 100 trillion of the six-legged buggers.
Some scientists think it’s probably closer to 10,000 trillion. That’s 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 just to give you an idea of the zeroes involved.
They’re scary numbers, especially considering that many of them don’t just ruin picnics, they pack a nasty bite.
Despite their massive population, humans have failed to do much in the way of researching the kind of venom that ants pack in their bites.
“Ants are found on every inhabited continent on Earth, and many of us are familiar with the sting their venom can produce,” said Dr Eivind Undheim of the University of Queensland.
“But despite the ubiquity of ants, analysing their venom has been neglected by researchers, likely due to ants’ relatively small size and venom yield, and also to the widespread misconception that they produce a simple acidic venom.”
It’s a situation that Dr Undheim and his colleague Dr Samuel Robinson – researchers at the University of Queensland’s Molecular Bioscience department – are looking to remedy.
The pair’s research has already begun yielding results. It’s early days, but it suggests that bull ant venom might actually be beneficial to humans.
“Venoms are complex mixtures of molecules that animals use to subjugate prey and defend themselves against predators,” said Dr Robinson.
“Defensive stings, in particular, are usually intensely painful and contain toxins that directly target our pain-sensing neurons.”
“We can thus use animal venoms to study the human nervous system and learn more about how pain travels through our body and how to develop compounds that block pain.”
What’s more, the research suggests that all insects that sting might be distant cousins.
“Our study revealed that the venom of the giant red bull ant is composed of a suite of peptide toxins, and that these are closely related to those found in the venoms of bees and wasps,” Dr Undheim said.
“This discovery suggests that these toxins evolved from a common ancestor gene found across the Aculeata, or ‘stinging wasps’, part of the Hymenoptera order, which comprises ants, bees, wasps and sawflies.”