Friday, April 22, 2011

Earth Day, 2011

If eating bugs will save the earth by cutting down on greenhouse gases, the Santanderianos are well ahead of the game. On April 15, the huge ants swarmed and were collected by the thousands. These 'hormigas culonas' (big-butt virgin queen ants) are considered a delicacy here and all during that night and the next one could smell the peculiar odor of roasting ants throughout the village.
These are the giant ants (hormigas colonus) which are (in most cases)
de-winged and only the rust-colored thorax is used for roasting and eating.

I have to admit that I was curious about trying one, but when it came right down to it, I simply could not manage it. The smell, for me, was a reminder of something nasty in my past, and my stomach revolted before I could put tongue or teeth to the crispy corpse.

The day of the swarming, even the birds and lizards were feasting and one could see parts of dead ants all over the streets. The conditions have to be just right, it seems, with a certain amount of rain and sunshine and correct temperatures, for the ants to decide to relocate (swarm) their nests. All over the countryside people are watching and waiting and they pounce like a kitten on a moth as soon as the hapless ants exit the ground. I did not see the gathering up of the bugs, but there were plenty of bags of ants ready to be dismembered by men and women sitting around in the park that day and the next.
Live ant crawling on the hand of the man who will be
dismembering it shortly. Wingspan is about 3 inches.

I am not sure when the custom got started, but there is a well-known local saying which embodies the philosophy of eating the ants, “We must eat them before they eat us.” reports that they are “giant leafcutter ants, the largest in the world,” and they are harvested by the Guane indians in the Colombian Amazon region...not so... they are harvested by local men and women (who might be related to the indigenous tribes of long ago) and cooked over gas in pots on a stove, not over mud holes in the ground. And we are not living in the Amazonia, but in the Andes, northern Colombia. 
A more correct version of history and use of the giant ants (Atta laevigata) was reported on the Discovery Channel in August 2006 and can be found by clicking on that link. 

A native who knows what peanuts taste like (peanuts are not a commonly found item here) said, “They taste a little like peanuts.” Other comments range from “like crispy bits of bacon,” to “crunchy burnt toast,” none of which caused me to overcome my first reaction.
Every year when there is a procession or parade, the large ant float from San Gil is brought out to memorialize this tradition, and it was one of the first things I saw when arriving in this country that puzzled me until I learned about the roasted ants. 
At each toll booth coming into Santander there are locals selling plastic bags with about 100 roasted ants in them for approximately $2000 CPs or $1 US. On a protein weight count, it is probably a very pricey item, but in this case it is considered a ‘treat,’ not necessarily a meal. They can also be found at various roadside stands throughout the state at similar prices.
However, they are offered up with wine at art gallery openings, given as hostess gifts when coming for dinner, placed on a table at a local restaurant to snack on with a Cervesa (beer) and there is even a restaurant here called “Los Hormigas” where they are served in a variety of ways to tourists and locals who are willing to pay a hefty price for such a meal.
So on this Earth Day 2011, and also Good Friday of the Holy Week, I will plant some yellow flowers in memory of the Amarillo Cat who disappeared some days ago after a grand mal seizure and I will watch everyone else smack their lips after crunching on the hormigas culonas.


  1. Oooh, not sure which I would refuse first ants or squid. ;P

  2. Having been working the wrong way through your posts I just read about Pasquel - so sorry.