COMMON NAMES: Velvety tree ants, escamoles (eggs)
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Liometopum apiculatum Mayr
Velvety tree ants are light yellow to dark brown with an abundance of hairs, hence their descriptive vernacular name. They live in large colonies, and foraging parties can form very long and busy trails and columns. Workers are efficient and aggressive, and are wont to bite if threatened; they also release a very noxious alarm pheromone! Their queens are among the largest North American ants, likely an adaptation for claustral nest founding (the first generation of workers are nourished from the queen's body fat when she establishes a new colony). Workers are omnivorous, tending aphids as well as visiting extrafloral nectaries of plants such as agave and yucca (navajonature.org).
L. apiculatum are found in arid and semi-arid regions of southwestern U.S. and Mexico from Colorado through Texas, New Mexico, southeastern Arizona, and as far as Quintana Roo, Mexico. They are typically found between 1000 and 2500 m altitude, with oak forests around 2000m being their optimum habitat. At higher elevations they are found in zones dominated by pinyon pine or ponderosa pine, and in riparian zones. They can also be found in creosote bush scrub and grasslands at lower altitudes. There are several other species of Liometopum which are found at varying altitudes, and competition between the species may account for their altitudinal distribution (Hoey-Chamberlain et al 2013).
The eggs of L. apiculatum, called escamoles, are a Mexican delicacy which was once presented as tribute to Aztec emporers (navajonature.org). They were often traded among Nahua (Aztec/Mexica) and Nahua (Otomi) tribes, to whom they remain culturally important today (slowfoodfoundation.com). They have a delicate taste and texture and hence are usually served with simple flavours such as onion and chilli, fried until they are white or ivory and often presented in tacos (slowfoodfoundation.com). The eggs are collected from the wild by ant 'farmers' called escamoleros, although knowledge of where and how to collect them is thought to be declining (slowfoodfoundation.com). Like other insect foods escamoles are very nutritious, and studies have found them to be high in proteins, lipids, essential fatty acids, minerals such as iron and zinc, as well as vitamins A, E, and D (Melo-Ruiz et al 2013).
Hoey-Chamberlain, R; Rust, MK; Klotz, JH (2013), "A Review of the Biology, Ecology and Behavior of Velvety Tree Ants of North America", Sociobiology 60 (1): 1–10,doi:10.13102/sociobiology.v60i1.1-10
Melo-Ruiz, V., Quirino-Barreda, T., Calvo-Carrillo, C., Sánchez-Herrera, K., & Sandoval-Trujillo, H. (2013). Assessment of Nutrients of Escamoles Ant Eggs Limotepum apiculatum M. by Spectroscopy Methods. J. Chem, 7, 1181-1187.
JENNIE HARVEY MSC
Jennie has an academic background in Biology and Ethnobotany and is currently studying for a PhD in Geography. She has interests in ethnobiology, biocultural conservation, traditional knowledge, and sustainable food systems.