BY PETER KRANZ
The leaves on the tree looked deformed. They were bound together into ball-shapes, a bit like birds nests. Then the leaves died and it looked unsightly.
A week or so later the leaf-balls had grown much larger and spread further. On closer investigation, I found there were thousands of small reddish-yellow ants inside each one.
Another week passed and the balls had grown larger still, and there were more of them appearing on nearby trees.
Bemused I took a closer look and poked one of the leaf balls with a stick. Some ants fell on my face and started to bite me enthusiastically: quite painful - worse than a mosquito but not as bad as a wasp (refer to the Schmidt Sting Pain Index.).
One managed to get into my mouth and I inadvertently crunched on it. It tasted of lemon juice.
This is a species of weaver ant that lives in PNG and which is both very annoying and has a painful bite. But it has some interesting properties. Colonies can be extremely large, consisting of more than a hundred nests spanning numerous trees and containing more than half a million workers.
A week later my cousin-brother came to visit. He had a very bad cold - maybe the flu - and I offered to get him some medicine from the chemist. But he looked through the window and said ‘no need, my medicine is in your trees’.
He stood underneath one of the leaf-ball nests and whacked it with a stick - whereupon thousands of furious weaver ants dropped on his head and started biting him. He bravely stayed the course and let them do their work for some minutes, then washed his face.
He said, "That's out traditional PNG medicine for colds and flu".
Apparently you can also put them in boiling water and breath in the vapour, or drink the juice.
Sure enough he got better in a day or two.
It is known in medicine that weaver ants can fight infection and people who live near them do sometimes use them as a medicine. The ants have a strong chemical, formic acid, in their bodies which they use to protect their nests. In humans it can help to fight infections.