Adapted from Jim Conrad's Naturalist Newsletter of June 29, 2007 Newsletter issued from Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve, QUERÉTARO, MÉXICO
INVASION OF BIG-BOTTOMED ANTS
The rainy season's first soaking rain came eight days ago. The next morning, last Friday, I walked to town to buy fruit and was amazed by what I saw on all the streets and sidewalks: Millions and millions of dark, amber-colored insects lay dead. A few remained alive but they were so lethargic that they seemed ready to die at any moment. They were the size and shape of wasps but up close they were clearly ants, despite their inch-long wings. You can see some dead ones on the sidewalk next to a floodlight at the cathedral below:
Ant colonies produce lots of winged male ants to mate with a few winged females. Once mating takes place the females fly off to find ground suitable for tunneling into and starting a new colony, but the males simply die. Therefore, the dead ants in the picture are dead males after the previous night's nuptial flights. You can review the ant life cycle at http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/TOOLS/ANTKEY/biolmeta.html.
Apparently the emergence of our ant species' winged males and females is coordinated with the advent of the rainy season, for everyone I spoke to knew about the big, winged ants who emerge with the first rains. Don Gonzalo called them hormigas voladoras, which just means "flying ants," but I also heard them called Tatanrías.
A search on "Hormigas Culonas" turned up an entire Colombian website just on Big-bottomed Ants. It's at http://www.hormigasculonas.com/english_version.htm.
In pitiable English the producer of that site extols the ants' good taste: "When the towns smell to the toasted ant frangances, it does people in the region say: CULONAS ARE BEING ROASTED!"
People here eat them, too, though not as avidly as once they did. It's funny how often people at first react with a laugh when I mention their edibility, but then later in the conversation offer their own recipe. Consensus seems to be that culonas are best lightly salted, then roasted atop a comal (a flat, metal plate, often an excised metal-barrel head, suspended above a fire). Just spritz with hot-sauce and eat.
Cristina at the Reserve says that the ants stink when they gather in such numbers. The Columbian website author expresses a different opinion about the odor, saying somewhat cryptically, "maiden sex smell that wake up the senses; reminiscence of loving rituals fragrances of any lover that want itself." I think he's saying that this ant also has aphrodisiacal properties.