On a wet morning in the department of Casanare I find myself standing in the center of an ants’ nest the size of a double garage at the foot of the Andes.

The floor beneath my feet moves and vibrates like a television picture with poor reception. Rusty-red ants with shiny, bulky heads start climbing up my rubber boots and eventually the jeans tucked within.

Fried with a pinch of salt these protein-loaded snacks are as addictive as popcorn I had been warned.

If this was one of those insect nightmares, I would probably twitch and wake up covered in cold sweat. As the leafcutter ants’ strong head pliers bite into my jeans’ and partly into my flesh, I am reminded that I am not dreaming.

A sweet odour fills the wet air, difficult to define but distinctive.

“This is the smell of the culona”, my husband smiles in anticipation. Then he bends down and rapidly collects two samples of the Atta Laevigata, the South American leafcutter ant, locally known as ‘hormiga culona’ and literally meaning ‘fat- bottomed ant’.

Statue of the 'hormiga culona' in Barichara
Statue of the ‘hormiga culona’ in Barichara.
Photo: Sacaria Ventaja/Creative Commons

It is exactly the fat bottom that once a year turns the usually so easy-going Casanareños into sudden hunters that swarm out into the woods.

This year I follow their example for the first time. “Only pick the large ones with the wings and the fat bottom,” my husband instructs me as I squint my eyes to make the right choice from what is a huge vibrating pile of insects.

He is a Casanareño from a long family history of Llaneros and Boyacenses and, unlike my European self, naturally confident in what he is doing in the middle of an ants’ nest.

We are exclusively collecting the ants’ queens, whose pea-sized bottoms are a delicacy in Colombia. They taste best when collected and prepared on the same day.

Fried with a pinch of salt these protein-loaded snacks are as addictive as popcorn I had been warned.

Along the foothills of the Oriental Andean range in the departments of Boyacá, Casanare and Santander the ‘culonas’, that once a year leave the underground for their nuptial flight, have been collected and eaten for hundreds of years.

While Santander took the commercial route and offers the insect snack all year round, conserved in a lot of salt or even as a result of commercial breeding, Casanareños only collect ants once a year when they appear as a natural phenomenon.

They prepare them immediately and serve them hardly salted, revealing more of the fried ants’ actual taste.

It is thanks to the exquisite taste that the tradition, a cult inherited from the pre-Columbian Guane people, has never lost its popularity. The immortal belief that the queens, collected as they are about to set off to reproduce, have aphrodisiac effects when consumed, certainly also plays its part in the ants’ success story.

Not for nothing are ‘fried ant bottoms’ a popular wedding gift in some Andean communities.

Fortunately for thousands of Colombian farmers, ants are a chance for some extra income. Many set out to collect the ‘culonas’ in the woods and sell them at up to as much as $50,000 pesos a pound.

“The rare harvest plus the tiring labour of collecting ‘culonas’, which has you bent down and getting bitten, sets the price,” my husband explains. “And, of course, their taste is…” He does not find words to finish the sentence but instead closes his eyes to perform a fainting gesture.

An opinion that is widely shared, I can see now. The harvest we started on our doorstep has turned into a local cultural event. Dozens of locals and entire families are now swarming out onto the green and earthy grounds around our guesthouse for a couple of hours of frantic ant harvesting.

Right up to the house come children, their grandparents and workers in boots and ponchos with bottles, containers and buckets to fill. Motorbikes are being parked outside the gate and fences climbed, excited shouts and eager hands wander over the pastures – a colourful invasion of people and insects.

After we collect half a plastic bucket of queens, we head for the kitchen, where we immediately pluck heads, legs and wings from the poor, once proud, queens of the ants.

Then comes the surprisingly appetizing frying process. In little oil, the large round bottoms are fried just until rusty-golden, then served slightly salted, hot and crunchy. A cacao-like odour mixed with that of fresh popcorn and something deliciously fried fills the kitchen. It instantly waters my mouth.

What does fried ant bottom taste like? Perhaps a little like popcorn, perhaps like peanuts, perhaps just like fried peas but with a crunchy crust on the outside and soft and floury inside – delicious to put it simple.

At the very least we know that we are eating fresh, local and seasonal, the result of a true labour of love.

About the author: Julia from Germany runs a B&B and adventure tour business in the plains of Yopal, Casanare. To find out more or to visit in time for next year’s ants harvest, go to the website www.aventurecotours.com.