People often keep a safe distance from red weaver ants as their sting inflicts sharp pain and reddish bumps on the skin. Despite this, weaver ants are popular in Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district among the people, mostly tribals, for the mouth-watering food item that is made out of it – the Kai Chutney.
This savoury food item, rich in valuable proteins, calcium, zinc, vitamin B-12, iron, magnesium, potassium, sodium, copper, fiber and 18 amino acids, is known to boost the immune system and keep diseases at bay.
In Odisha, scientists are now fine-tuning their research to make a presentation for the geographical indications (GI) registry of Kai Chutney. Applied under food category, the GI tag would help develop a structured hygiene protocol in the preparation of Kai Chutney for standard wider use. GI labels enhance the reputation and value of local products and support local businesses.
Weaver ants, scientifically called Oecophylla smaragdina, are abundantly found in Mayurbhanj throughout the year. They construct nests with leaves of host trees. “When required, leafy nests of ants are plucked from their host trees and collected in a bucket of water before sorting and separation from leaves and debris. Larval and adult stages of the ants are preferred and are either eaten raw or turned into “chutney” by mixing them with spicy ingredients,” said Jagannath Patra, a scientist at the Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK). The chutney is prepared by mixing and grinding salt, ginger, garlic and chilly and is sold by tribals in rural markets.
Medicinal and bio-control uses
According to the application for GI registry submitted by the Mayurbhanj Kai Society Limited, “The nests are strong enough to withstand wind and are impermeable to water. Kai’s nests are usually elliptical in shape and range in size from a single small leaf folded and bound onto itself to large nests consisting of many leaves and which measure over half a meter in length.”
“The tribes of Mayurbhanj consume Kai chutney or soup to get rid of flu, common cold, whooping cough, to increase appetite, enhance vision and eyesight naturally without corrective eye wear and to treat joints pain, stomach diseases, essentials for the development of a healthy brain and the nervous system,” Deepak Kumar Mohanty, a senior scientist with KVK, said.
“The tribal healers also prepare medicinal oil by dipping the collected Kais in pure mustard oil. After 30 days, this oil is used as baby oil and externally used to cure rheumatism, gout, ringworm and other skin diseases. So it is the only panacea for the tribes,” the application says.
“The “Kai” (Red Weaver Ant) family consists of three category members - workers, major workers and queens. Workers and major workers are mostly orange-colored. Kais feed on small insects and other invertebrates, their prey being mainly beetles, flies and hymenopterans,” it said.
“Kais are bio-control agents. They are aggressive and prey on most arthropods entering their territory. Due to their predatory habit, Kais are recognized as biological control agents in tropical crops as they are able to protect a variety of crops against many different insect pests. In this way, they are utilized indirectly as an alternative to the chemical insecticides,” said Dr. Mohanty.