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Have you read The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency collection of books by Alexander McCall Smith? In these mystery novels Precious Ramotswe, a private detective in Botswana, often partakes in redbush tea. Did you know that she might not be drinking that tea if it weren't for ants?

cup-of-tea

Redbush tea, also known as rooibos, is processed from the shoots and leaves of a native African plant, Aspalathus linearis. Cultivation of the plant was initially difficult because when the seed pods mature, they rupture and shoot out the seeds. As you can imagine, that made it nearly impossible to find and pick up large enough quantities of the seeds to farm the plants.

Farmers eventually discovered certain kinds of ants harvest and store the rooibos seeds in their nests. The farmers collected seeds from the ant nests and planted them successfully. Now farmers have developed a technique to sift the soil for seed and do not rely on ants as much. Because of their initial use of the harvesting power of ants, however, redbush tea is now available worldwide.

Note: Contrary to some reports on the Internet, the seeds gathered by ants are used to grow new plants, not to make the tea itself.

Does anyone know what species of ant is involved?

Links to more information:

Rooibos Farming - From Seed to Shop

All About Rooibos

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Ants may be useful in ways we never imagined. Now a group of researchers from 16 different institutions are collaborating on a project to find out what ants can tell us about genes, environment and aging.

Pheidole
Why ants? Studying aging in ants makes sense because the different female castes - the workers (b in figure), soldiers (a in the figure), and queens, - may have the same genes and yet have quite different life spans. Also, ants are relatively long lived as insects go. Some queen ants have lived up to 30 years in the laboratory.

NYU School of Medicine researcher Dr. Danny Reinberg, Dr. Juergen Liebig, Dr. Shelley Berger and a number of other collaborators are looking at ant epigenetics, that is, the impact lifestyle and environment have on genes and gene regulation. The results may tell us more about how genes and environment effect aging in humans.

The scientists are studying three types of ants. In the big-headed ants of the genus Pheidole, like those shown in the drawing above, the soldiers may be induced artificially, allowing researchers to study the gene regulation and its consequences. They have also chosen Harpegnathos saltator, a species with no differentiation between workers and queens.  When one "queen" dies, another worker can take over the reproductive role. Finally, they chose a carpenter ant Camponotus floridanus, for its large size, complex castes, and relatively long life.

It will be interesting to see what this research uncovers.

For more information, see

Daily Media report on Dr. Reinberg's research

Dr. Reinberg's Laboratory Website

Collaborator Dr. Juergen Liebig at Arizona State University

Fountain of Youth Found in the Anthill?

What Can Ants Teach Us About Aging and Behavior?

Ants May Help Researchers Unlock Mysteries of Human Aging Process

Picture credit:  Pheidole dentata: a) normal soldier; b) normal worker from WM Wheeler, 1901. American Naturalist 35:  877-886. Wikimedia Commons