“BARICHARA, Colombia – The first loud crackle tastes and feels like popcorn, but by the time the juices spray wildly in your mouth and the filament-like legs slide down your throat, there’s no mistaking this toasted ant queen.
The people of sun-soaked northern Colombia have been eating ants for centuries. They believe the accurately named “hormiga culona” â€” big-butt queen ant â€” is everything from a natural form of Viagra to a protein-rich defense against cancer.
Now the invertebrates are going global: A businessman in Santander province exported more than 880 pounds of the inch-long queen ants last year, many of them to be hand-dipped in Belgian chocolate and sold in fancy packaging at $8 for a half dozen at upscale London department stores like Harrods and Fortnum & Mason.
But even as the delicacy begins to expand beyond Colombia, the ants appear to be dwindling in Santander, and that worries the region’s ant-eating bipeds.
This year’s harvest, which usually begins around Easter and lasts as late as June, was one of the worst on record, with peasants in the artist colony of Barichara reporting half their normal year’s haul.
Entomologists say the winter was unusually harsh and spring rains were late, which may have disturbed the virgin queen ants’ nuptial flights â€” the one time a year when they emerge from their dune-like ant hills to seek a mate and form a new colony. Almost as often, the queens are grabbed by lizards, birds or humans.
Expanding fields of beans, tomatoes and tobacco also have replaced the region’s last remaining wilderness and farmers consider the leaf-cutting ants â€” the species atta laevigata â€” to be serious pests.
“It’s an age-old dilemma for the farmer â€” should I kill it or eat it?”
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