For generations, the Indigenous Tjupan people of Australia enjoyed the sweet treat of honey made by honeypot ants. As a favorite pastime, entire families would go searching for the underground colonies, first spotting a worker ant and then tracing it to its home. The ants, which belong to the species called Camponotus inflatus, usually build their subterranean homes near the mulga trees, Acacia aneura. Having traced an ant to its tree, it would be the women who carefully dug a pit next to a colony, cautious not to destroy the entire structure. Once the ant chambers were exposed, the women would harvest a small amount to avoid devastating the colony’s stocks—and the family would share the treat.
The Tjupan people also knew that the honey had antimicrobial properties. “You could use it for a sore throat,” says Danny Ulrich, a member of the Tjupan nation. “You could also use it topically, on cuts and things like that.”
These hunts have become rarer, as many of the Tjupan people have moved away and, up until now, the exact antimicrobial properties of the ant honey remained unknown. But recently, scientists Andrew Dong and Kenya Fernandes from the University of Sydney, joined Ulrich, who runs the Honeypot Ants tours in Kalgoorlie, a city in Western Australia, on a honey-gathering expedition. Afterwards, they ran a series of experiments analyzing the honey’s antimicrobial activity—and confirmed that the Indigenous wisdom was true. The honey was effective against Staphylococcus aureus, a common pathogen responsible for sore throats, skin infections like boils and sores, and also sepsis, which can result in death. Moreover, the honey also worked against two species of fungi, Cryptococcus and Aspergillus, which can be pathogenic to humans, especially those with suppressed immune systems.
In the era of growing antibiotic resistance and the rising threat of pathogenic fungi, these findings may help scientists identify and make new antimicrobial compounds. “Natural products have been honed over thousands and millions of years by nature and evolution,” says Fernandes. “And some of them have complex and intricate properties that make them really important as potential new antibiotics. “
In an era of growing resistance to antibiotics and new threats of fungi infections, the latest findings about honeypot ants are helping scientists identify new antimicrobial drugs.
Bee honey is also known for its antimicrobial properties, but bees produce it very differently than the ants. Bees collect nectar from flowers, which they regurgitate at the hive and pack into the hexagonal honeycombs they build for storage. As they do so, they also add into the mix an enzyme called glucose oxidase produced by their glands. The enzyme converts atmospheric oxygen into hydrogen peroxide, a reactive molecule that destroys bacteria and acts as a natural preservative. After the bees pack the honey into the honeycombs, they fan it with their wings to evaporate the water. Once a honeycomb is full, the bees put a beeswax cover on it, where it stays well-preserved thanks to the enzymatic action, until the bees need it.
Less is known about the chemistry of ants’ honey-making. Similarly to bees, they collect nectar. They also collect the sweet sap of the mulga tree. Additionally, they also “milk” the aphids—small sap-sucking insects that live on the tree. When ants tickle the aphids with their antennae, the latter release a sweet substance, which the former also transfer to their colonies. That’s where the honey management difference becomes really pronounced. The ants don’t build any kind of structures to store their honey. Instead, they store it in themselves.
The workers feed their harvest to their fellow ants called repletes, stuffing them up to the point that their swollen bellies outgrow the ants themselves, looking like amber-colored honeypots—hence the name. Because of their size, repletes don’t move, but hang down from the chamber’s ceiling, acting as living feedstocks. When food becomes scarce, they regurgitate their reserves to their colony’s brethren. It’s not clear whether the repletes die afterwards or can be restuffed again. “That's a good question,” Dong says. “After they've been stretched, they can't really return to exactly the same shape.”
These replete ants are the “treat” the Tjupan women dug for. Once they saw the round-belly ants inside the chambers, they would reach in carefully and get a few scoops of them. “You see a lot of honeypot ants just hanging on the roof of the little openings,” says Ulrich’s mother, Edie Ulrich. The women would share the ants with family members who would eat them one by one. “They're very delicate,” shares Edie Ulrich—you have to take them out carefully, so they don’t accidentally pop and become a wasted resource. “Because you’d lose all this precious honey.”
Dong stumbled upon the honeypot ants phenomenon because he was interested in Indigenous foods and went on Ulrich’s tour. He quickly became fascinated with the insects and their role in the Indigenous culture. “The honeypot ants are culturally revered by the Indigenous people,” he says. Eventually he decided to test out the honey’s medicinal qualities.
The researchers were surprised to see that even the smallest, eight percent concentration of honey was able to arrest the growth of S. aureus.
To do this, the two scientists first diluted the ant honey with water. “We used something called doubling dilutions, which means that we made 32 percent dilutions, and then we halve that to 16 percent and then we half that to eight percent,” explains Fernandes. The goal was to obtain as much results as possible with the meager honey they had. “We had very, very little of the honeypot ant honey so we wanted to maximize the spectrum of results we can get without wasting too much of the sample.”
After that, the researchers grew different microbes inside a nutrient rich broth. They added the broth to the different honey dilutions and incubated the mixes for a day or two at the temperature favorable to the germs’ growth. If the resulting solution turned turbid, it was a sign that the bugs proliferated. If it stayed clear, it meant that the honey destroyed them. The researchers were surprised to see that even the smallest, eight percent concentration of honey was able to arrest the growth of S. aureus. “It was really quite amazing,” Fernandes says. “Eight milliliters of honey in 92 milliliters of water is a really tiny amount of honey compared to the amount of water.”
Similar to bee honey, the ants’ honey exhibited some peroxide antimicrobial activity, researchers found, but given how little peroxide was in the solution, they think the honey also kills germs by a different mechanism. “When we measured, we found that [the solution] did have some hydrogen peroxide, but it didn't have as much of it as we would expect based on how active it was,” Fernandes says. “Whether this hydrogen peroxide also comes from glucose oxidase or whether it's produced by another source, we don't really know,” she adds. The research team does have some hypotheses about the identity of this other germ-killing agent. “We think it is most likely some kind of antimicrobial peptide that is actually coming from the ant itself.”
The honey also has a very strong activity against the two types of fungi, Cryptococcus and Aspergillus. Both fungi are associated with trees and decaying leaves, as well as in the soils where ants live, so the insects likely have evolved some natural defense compounds, which end up inside the honey.
It wouldn’t be the first time when modern medicines take their origin from the natural world or from the indigenous people’s knowledge. The bark of the cinchona tree native to South America contains quinine, a substance that treats malaria. The Indigenous people of the Andes used the bark to quell fever and chills for generations, and when Europeans began to fall ill with malaria in the Amazon rainforest, they learned to use that medicine from the Andean people.
The wonder drug aspirin similarly takes its origin from a bark of a tree—in this case a willow.
Even some anticancer compounds originated from nature. A chemotherapy drug called Paclitaxel, was originally extracted from the Pacific yew trees, Taxus brevifolia. The samples of the Pacific yew bark were first collected in 1962 by researchers from the United States Department of Agriculture who were looking for natural compounds that might have anti-tumor activity. In December 1992, the FDA approved Paclitaxel (brand name Taxol) for the treatment of ovarian cancer and two years later for breast cancer.
In the era when the world is struggling to find new medicines fast enough to subvert a fungal or bacterial pandemic, these discoveries can pave the way to new therapeutics. “I think it's really important to listen to indigenous cultures and to take their knowledge because they have been using these sources for a really, really long time,” Fernandes says. Now we know it works, so science can elucidate the molecular mechanisms behind it, she adds. “And maybe it can even provide a lead for us to develop some kind of new treatments in the future.”
Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Popular Science, Smithsonian, National Geographic, Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, the New York Times and other major national and international publications. A Columbia J-School alumna, she has won several awards for her stories, including the ASJA Crisis Coverage Award for Covid reporting, and has been a contributing editor at Nautilus Magazine. In 2021, Zeldovich released her first book, The Other Dark Matter, published by the University of Chicago Press, about the science and business of turning waste into wealth and health. You can find her on http://linazeldovich.com/ and @linazeldovich.
The glass-encased cabinet looks like a display meant to hold reasonably priced watches, or drugstore beauty creams shipped from France. But instead of this stagnant merchandise, each of its five shelves is overgrown with leaves — moss-soft pea sprouts, spikes of Lolla rosa lettuces, pale bok choy, dark kale, purple basil or red-veined sorrel or green wisps of dill. The glass structure isn’t a cabinet, but rather a “micro farm.”
The gadget is on display at the Richmond, Virginia headquarters of Babylon Micro-Farms, a company that aims to make indoor farming in the U.S. more accessible and sustainable. Babylon’s soilless hydroponic growing system, which feeds plants via nutrient-enriched water, allows chefs on cruise ships, cafeterias and elsewhere to provide home-grown produce to patrons, just seconds after it’s harvested. Currently, there are over 200 functioning systems, either sold or leased to customers, and more of them are on the way.
The chef-farmers choose from among 45 types of herb and leafy-greens seeds, plop them into grow trays, and a few weeks later they pick and serve. While success is predicated on at least a small amount of these humans’ care, the systems are autonomously surveilled round-the-clock from Babylon’s base of operations. And artificial intelligence is helping to run the show.
Babylon piloted the use of specialized cameras that take pictures in different spectrums to gather some less-obvious visual data about plants’ wellbeing and alert people if something seems off.
Imagine consistently perfect greens and tomatoes and strawberries, grown hyper-locally, using less water, without chemicals or environmental contaminants. This is the hefty promise of controlled environment agriculture (CEA) — basically, indoor farms that can be hydroponic, aeroponic (plant roots are suspended and fed through misting), or aquaponic (where fish play a role in fertilizing vegetables). But whether they grow 4,160 leafy-green servings per year, like one Babylon farm, or millions of servings, like some of the large, centralized facilities starting to supply supermarkets across the U.S., they seek to minimize failure as much as possible.
Babylon’s soilless hydroponic growing system
Courtesy Babylon Micro-Farms
Here, AI is starting to play a pivotal role. CEA growers use it to help “make sense of what’s happening” to the plants in their care, says Scott Lowman, vice president of applied research at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research (IALR) in Virginia, a state that’s investing heavily in CEA companies. And although these companies say they’re not aiming for a future with zero human employees, AI is certainly poised to take a lot of human farming intervention out of the equation — for better and worse.
Most of these companies are compiling their own data sets to identify anything that might block the success of their systems. Babylon had already integrated sensor data into its farms to measure heat and humidity, the nutrient content of water, and the amount of light plants receive. Last year, they got a National Science Foundation grant that allowed them to pilot the use of specialized cameras that take pictures in different spectrums to gather some less-obvious visual data about plants’ wellbeing and alert people if something seems off. “Will this plant be healthy tomorrow? Are there things…that the human eye can't see that the plant starts expressing?” says Amandeep Ratte, the company’s head of data science. “If our system can say, Hey, this plant is unhealthy, we can reach out to [users] preemptively about what they’re doing wrong, or is there a disease at the farm?” Ratte says. The earlier the better, to avoid crop failures.
Natural light accounts for 70 percent of Greenswell Growers’ energy use on a sunny day.
Courtesy Greenswell Growers
IALR’s Lowman says that other CEA companies are developing their AI systems to account for the different crops they grow — lettuces come in all shapes and sizes, after all, and each has different growing needs than, for example, tomatoes. The ways they run their operations differs also. Babylon is unusual in its decentralized structure. But centralized growing systems with one main location have variabilities, too. AeroFarms, which recently declared bankruptcy but will continue to run its 140,000-square foot vertical operation in Danville, Virginia, is entirely enclosed and reliant on the intense violet glow of grow lights to produce microgreens.
Different companies have different data needs. What data is essential to AeroFarms isn’t quite the same as for Greenswell Growers located in Goochland County, Virginia. Raising four kinds of lettuce in a 77,000-square-foot automated hydroponic greenhouse, the vagaries of naturally available light, which accounts for 70 percent of Greenswell’s energy use on a sunny day, affect operations. Their tech needs to account for “outside weather impacts,” says president Carl Gupton. “What adjustments do we have to make inside of the greenhouse to offset what's going on outside environmentally, to give that plant optimal conditions? When it's 85 percent humidity outside, the system needs to do X, Y and Z to get the conditions that we want inside.”
AI will help identify diseases, as well as when a plant is thirsty or overly hydrated, when it needs more or less calcium, phosphorous, nitrogen.
Nevertheless, every CEA system has the same core needs — consistent yield of high quality crops to keep up year-round supply to customers. Additionally, “Everybody’s got the same set of problems,” Gupton says. Pests may come into a facility with seeds. A disease called pythium, one of the most common in CEA, can damage plant roots. “Then you have root disease pressures that can also come internally — a change in [growing] substrate can change the way the plant performs,” Gupton says.
AI will help identify diseases, as well as when a plant is thirsty or overly hydrated, when it needs more or less calcium, phosphorous, nitrogen. So, while companies amass their own hyper-specific data sets, Lowman foresees a time within the next decade “when there will be some type of [open-source] database that has the most common types of plant stress identified” that growers will be able to tap into. Such databases will “create a community and move the science forward,” says Lowman.
In fact, IALR is working on assembling images for just such a database now. On so-called “smart tables” inside an Institute lab, a team is growing greens and subjects them to various stressors. Then, they’re administering treatments while taking images of every plant every 15 minutes, says Lowman. Some experiments generate 80,000 images; the challenge lies in analyzing and annotating the vast trove of them, marking each one to reflect outcome—for example increasing the phosphate delivery and the plant’s response to it. Eventually, they’ll be fed into AI systems to help them learn.
For all the enthusiasm surrounding this technology, it’s not without downsides. Training just one AI system can emit over 250,000 pounds of carbon dioxide, according to MIT Technology Review. AI could also be used “to enhance environmental benefit for CEA and optimize [its] energy consumption,” says Rozita Dara, a computer science professor at the University of Guelph in Canada, specializing in AI and data governance, “but we first need to collect data to measure [it].”
The chef-farmers can choose from 45 types of herb and leafy-greens seeds.
Courtesy Babylon Micro-Farms
Any system connected to the Internet of Things is also vulnerable to hacking; if CEA grows to the point where “there are many of these similar farms, and you're depending on feeding a population based on those, it would be quite scary,” Dara says. And there are privacy concerns, too, in systems where imaging is happening constantly. It’s partly for this reason, says Babylon’s Ratte, that the company’s in-farm cameras all “face down into the trays, so the only thing [visible] is pictures of plants.”
Tweaks to improve AI for CEA are happening all the time. Greenswell made its first harvest in 2022 and now has annual data points they can use to start making more intelligent choices about how to feed, water, and supply light to plants, says Gupton. Ratte says he’s confident Babylon’s system can already “get our customers reliable harvests. But in terms of how far we have to go, it's a different problem,” he says. For example, if AI could detect whether the farm is mostly empty—meaning the farm’s user hasn’t planted a new crop of greens—it can alert Babylon to check “what's going on with engagement with this user?” Ratte says. “Do they need more training? Did the main person responsible for the farm quit?”
Lowman says more automation is coming, offering greater ability for systems to identify problems and mitigate them on the spot. “We still have to develop datasets that are specific, so you can have a very clear control plan, [because] artificial intelligence is only as smart as what we tell it, and in plant science, there's so much variation,” he says. He believes AI’s next level will be “looking at those first early days of plant growth: when the seed germinates, how fast it germinates, what it looks like when it germinates.” Imaging all that and pairing it with AI, “can be a really powerful tool, for sure.”
The livestock trucks arrived all night. One after the other they backed up to the wood chute leading to a dusty corral and loosed their cargo — 580 head of cattle by the time the last truck pulled away at 3pm the next afternoon. Dan Probert, astride his horse, guided the cows to paddocks of pristine grassland stretching alongside the snow-peaked Wallowa Mountains. They’d spend the summer here grazing bunchgrass and clovers and biscuitroot. The scuffle of their hooves and nibbles of their teeth would mimic the elk, antelope and bison that are thought to have historically roamed this portion of northeastern Oregon’s Zumwalt Prairie, helping grasses grow and restoring health to the soil.
The cows weren’t Probert’s, although the fifth-generation rancher and one other member of the Carman Ranch Direct grass-fed beef collective also raise their own herds here for part of every year. But in spring, when the prairie is in bloom, Probert receives cattle from several other ranchers. As the grasses wither in October, the cows move on to graze fertile pastures throughout the Columbia Basin, which stretches across several Pacific Northwest states; some overwinter on a vegetable farm in central Washington, feeding on corn leaves and pea vines left behind after harvest.
Sharing land and other resources among farmers isn’t new. But research shows it may be increasingly relevant in a time of climatic upheaval, potentially influencing “farmers to adopt environmentally friendly practices and agricultural innovation,” according to a 2021 paper in the Journal of Economic Surveys. Farmers might share knowledge about reducing pesticide use, says Heather Frambach, a supply chain consultant who works with farmers in California and elsewhere. As a group they may better qualify for grants to monitor soil and water quality.
Most research around such practices applies to cooperatives, whose owner-members equally share governance and profits. But a collective like Carman Ranch’s — spearheaded by fourth-generation rancher Cory Carman, who purchases beef from eight other ranchers to sell under one “regeneratively” certified brand — shows when producers band together, they can achieve eco-benefits that would be elusive if they worked alone.
Vitamins and minerals in soil pass into plants through their roots, then into cattle as they graze, then back around as the cows walk around pooping.
Carman knows from experience. Taking over her family's land in 2003, she started selling grass-fed beef “because I really wanted to figure out how to not participate in the feedlot world, to have a healthier product. I didn't know how we were going to survive,” she says. Part of her land sits on a degraded portion of Zumwalt Prairie replete with invasive grasses; working to restore it, she thought, “What good does it do to kill myself trying to make this ranch more functional? If you want to make a difference, change has to be more than single entrepreneurs on single pieces of land. It has to happen at a community level.” The seeds of her collective were sown.
Raising 100 percent grass-fed beef requires land that’s got something for cows to graze in every season — which most collective members can’t access individually. So, they move cattle around their various parcels. It’s practical, but it also restores nutrient flows “to the way they used to move, from lowlands and canyons during the winter to higher-up places as the weather gets hot,” Carman says. Meaning, vitamins and minerals in soil pass into plants through their roots, then into cattle as they graze, then back around as the cows walk around pooping.
Cory Carman sells grass-fed beef, which requires land that’s got something for cows to graze in every season.
Courtesy Cory Carman
Each collective member has individual ecological goals: Carman brought in pigs to root out invasive grasses and help natives flourish. Probert also heads a more conventional grain-finished beef collective with 100 members, and their combined 6.5 million ranchland acres were eligible for a grant supporting climate-friendly practices, which compels them to improve soil and water health and biodiversity and make their product “as environmentally friendly as possible,” Probert says. The Washington veg farmer reduced tilling and pesticide use thanks to the ecoservices of visiting cows. Similarly, a conventional hay farmer near Carman has reduced his reliance on fertilizer by letting cattle graze the cover crops he plants on 80 acres.
Additionally, the collective must meet the regenerative standards promised on their label — another way in which they work together to achieve ecological goals. Says David LeZaks, formerly a senior fellow at finance-focused ecology nonprofit Croatan Institute, it’s hard for individual farmers to access monetary assistance. “But it's easier to get financing flowing when you increase the scale with cooperatives or collectives,” he says. “This supports producers in ways that can lead to better outcomes on the landscape.”
New, smaller scale farmers might gain the most from collective and cooperative models.
For example, it can help them minimize waste by using more of an animal, something our frugal ancestors excelled at. Small-scale beef producers normally throw out hides; Thousand Hills’ 50 regenerative beef producers together have enough to sell to Timberland to make carbon-neutral leather. In another example, working collectively resulted in the support of more diverse farms: Meadowlark Community Mill in Wisconsin went from working with one wheat grower, to sourcing from several organic wheat growers marketing flour under one premium brand.
Another example shows how these collaborations can foster greater equity, among other benefits: The Federation of Southern Cooperatives has a mission to support Black farmers as they build community health. It owns several hundred forest acres in Alabama, where it teaches members to steward their own forest land and use it to grow food — one member coop raises goats to graze forest debris and produce milk. Adding the combined acres of member forest land to the Federation’s, the group qualified for a federal conservation grant that will keep this resource available for food production, and community environmental and mental health benefits. “That's the value-add of the collective land-owner structure,” says Dãnia Davy, director of land retention and advocacy.
New, smaller scale farmers might gain the most from collective and cooperative models, says Jordan Treakle, national program coordinator of the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC). Many of them enter farming specifically to raise healthy food in healthy ways — with organic production, or livestock for soil fertility. With land, equipment and labor prohibitively expensive, farming collectively allows shared costs and risk that buy farmers the time necessary to “build soil fertility and become competitive” in the marketplace, Treakle says. Just keeping them in business is an eco-win; when small farms fail, they tend to get sold for development or absorbed into less-diversified operations, so the effects of their success can “reverberate through the entire local economy.”
Frambach, the supply chain consultant, has been experimenting with what she calls “collaborative crop planning,” where she helps farmers strategize what they’ll plant as a group. “A lot of them grow based on what they hear their neighbor is going to do, and that causes really poor outcomes,” she says. “Nobody replanted cauliflower after the [atmospheric rivers in California] this year and now there's a huge shortage of cauliflower.” A group plan can avoid the under-planting that causes farmers to lose out on revenue.
It helps avoid overplanted crops, too, which small farmers might have to plow under or compost. Larger farmers, conversely, can sell surplus produce into the upcycling market — to Matriark Foods, for example, which turns it into value-add products like pasta sauce for companies like Sysco that supply institutional kitchens at colleges and hospitals. Frambach and Anna Hammond, Matriark’s CEO, want to collectivize smaller farmers so that they can sell to the likes of Matriark and “not lose an incredible amount of income,” Hammond says.
Ultimately, farming is fraught with challenges and even collectivizing doesn’t guarantee that farms will stay in business. But with agriculture accounting for almost 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions globally, there's an “urgent” need to shift farming practices to more environmentally sustainable models, as well as a “demand in the marketplace for it,” says NFFC’s Treakle. “The growth of cooperative and collective farming can be a huge, huge boon for the ecological integrity of the system.”