Youâ€™re hiking through the thick, steamy jungle of Ecuadorâ€™s rainforest. The hot sun overhead is softened by the dense canopy of trees, vines and other lush, green plant life. Far off, a parrot shrieks, and hairy spiders scamper over the muddy trail in front of your feet. Suddenly, there is a break in the impenetrable wall of green: youâ€™ve stumbled into an open space, a dry patch of ground dominated by a lone tree. Nothing else grows within about twenty feet of it.
According to local belief, the strange open space in the middle of the dense jungle is the home of a malignant forest spirit. In the local language, itâ€™s called a â€śdevilâ€™s gardenâ€ť and they are fairly common in parts of the Ecuadorian and Peruvian rainforests. If youâ€™re with a local guide, however, he or she will not avoid the spot: instead, he or she may break a twig off the tree, split it open to reveal dozens of tiny brown ants â€¦ and invite you to eat them!
The ants are, in fact, edible. They are called â€ślemon antsâ€ť because of their vague tangy, lemony taste. Feel free to have a try: it wonâ€™t hurt you and is likely to become one of your most memorable experiences in the rainforest. But the ants are more than a tasty jungle treat: together with the lone tree in the middle of the clearing they make up one of the most remarkable symbiotic relationships in nature.
The ants (myrmelachista schumanni) and tree (duroia hirsuta) work together to survive and thrive in the competitive forest. The ants get the benefit of a home, and itâ€™s a good dealâ€”some ant colonies are thought to have survived for more than 800 years. The trees gain the advantage of room to growâ€”the ants are the only known insect species to produce their own herbicide, a toxin that poisons other plants in the area, allowing their home tree to get the sunlight it needs. The ants bite into the leaves of any other plant species that tries to take root in the area, injecting formic acid which slowly kills it.
Donâ€™t plan on making a meal of lemon ants; theyâ€™re very tiny and youâ€™d probably have to eat the whole colony before you felt full. But the next time you find yourself in the devilâ€™s garden, stop for a moment and enjoy the rainforestâ€™s version of dessert!