The short introductory paragraph here is text from The Ants (1990), Chapter 7:Communication. This is a dated and brief treatment. If you know more about ant venom, please share your this by revising and adding to what is stated here.
The primary function of the poison gland in ants is the production of formic acid (in the Formicinae) or venom used in predation and defense. The primitive components, shared as a class with other aculeate hymenopterans, are proteinaceous. They are also neurotoxic, histolytic, or both in their effect--hence crippling to small invertebrate enemies and painful to human beings. This type of venom is the most common form in the anatomically more primitive ant subfamilies, namely the Ponerinae, Myrmeciinae, Pseudomyrmecinae, Dorylinae, and Ecitoninae. It is widespread among the tribes and genera of the Myrmicinae as well. Its effects are enhanced in bulldog ants of the genus Myrmecia by the addition of histamine and histamine-releasing factors. The “fire” in the venom of fire ants (Solenopsis), which indeed feels like a pinpoint burn, is caused by an unusual class of alkaloids, the piperidines, with 2,6-dialkylpiperidines composing the major components. In some species of myrmicines and formicines, a few constituents of the poison gland serve as recruitment or alarm substances. In Monomorium and Solenopsis at least, they are effective repellents against enemy ants and other arthropods.
Recent Venom Studies
The citations below represent a small, random selection of published studies. You can find a full reference for each citation at the end of this page. If a link to a taxon page (species, genus, etc.) is included this tells you two things about this name: the taxon was a focus of the study and the linked page includes some information from the publication.
- LeBrun et al. (2015) - Formicinae
- Santos et al. (2017) - Pachycondyla striata
The Poison Gland
Holldobler and Wilson (1990) - The poison gland apparatus typically consists of paired filamentous glands that converge into a single convoluted gland, which in turn empties into a thin-walled, sac-like reservoir or “poison sac.” The most evolved version is that found in the Formicinae. The convoluted gland is located on the dorsum of the poison sac, a condition unique within the Hymenoptera. The sac as a whole is also exceptionally large and it produces large quantities of formic acid by biosynthetic pathways that are now known (Hefetz and Blum, 1978). This simplest of all organic acids has for historical reasons been popularly regarded as characteristic of all ants, perhaps because it was one of the first natural products isolated in pure form, from the distillate of Formica workers in 1670. Nevertheless, it is evidently limited to the subfamily Formicinae.
- Hölldobler, B. and Wilson, E. O. 1990. The Ants. Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University Press.
- LeBrun, E. G., P. J. Diebold, M. R. Orr, and L. E. Gilbert. 2015. Widespread Chemical Detoxification of Alkaloid Venom by Formicine Ants. Journal of Chemical Ecology. 41:884-895. doi:10.1007/s10886-015-0625-3
- Santos, P. P., P. D. Games, D. O. Azevedo, E. Barros, L. L. de Oliveira, H. J. D. Ramos, M. C. Baracat-Pereira, and J. E. Serrao. 2017. Proteomic analysis of the venom of the predatory ant Pachycondyla striata (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Archives of Insect Biochemistry and Physiology. 96:17. doi:10.1002/arch.21424