The large bottomed ant (Atta Laevigata) is one of the 15 ant species known as “leafcutters”, which live only in the Americas. The particular characteristic of these insects – and the reason that they are known as “leafcutters” – is that they perform actual agricultural work. Basically, thanks to their inexhaustible industriousness, within their nests these ants cultivate the mushrooms that they eat using beds of chewed up leaves as a substrate for the fungus to grow on.
The local name “Large bottomed” is due to the prominence of the ants’ abdomen.
Consumption of these insects dates back to the pre-Columbian era: the indigenous communities of the Santander region (the Guanes) and of the Amazon ate them in ancient times.
Virgin queen ants are collected (and only the queens are edible) during the roughly nine week period of the rainy season, when they are ready for their nuptial flight. Gathering the insects is not easy and the harvesters are often injured by the soldier and worker ants that have incredibly strong pincers. The queens are found in the rain forests and the Amazon savannah.
Indigenous women use these ants to make a spicy sauce called ommai (also known as ají negro, or black chili). The best ants for this sauce are those found in the forest, as they contain more of the formic acid that gives the spicy flavor, which is intense and characteristic. The ideal period for preparing ommai is in May, when a greater number of ants can be collected.
To make the sauce, the wings and legs of the ants are removed before the insects are brined and then toasted in ceramic skillets. Afterwards they are cooked in fresh cassava juice (Manihot esculenta). Finally a few spices are added, including both sweet and spicy pepper. Scientific studies have shown that the protein content of the sauce is quite high, while saturated fat levels are contained and the overall nutritional values are important for the locals.
This sauce is used to flavor meat, fish and cassava bread, but it is also a traditional wedding gift, as it is thought to act as an aphrodisiac.
The product is mainly prepared in San Gil and Barichara Curiti, two towns in the Santander department.
Large bottomed ants act as a source of extra income for the poorest farmers, but unfortunately their extreme levels of consumption and the lack of any adequate conservation plan, along with competition with other ant species, seem to have reduced the number of colonies, thus putting the very survival of this insect at risk.