Bookmark Monday: Orange Ants

The use of carnivorous citrus ants (Oecophylla smaragdina) to protect orange groves in China dates back at least 1,700 years. The earliest known mention of such use is attributed to Ji Han in his records of the Plants and Trees of the Southern Regions (A.D. 304):
The people of Jiao -zhi sell in their markets ants in bags of rush matting. The nests are like silk. The bags are all attached to twigs and leaes which, with the ants inside the nests, are for sale. The ants are reddish-yellow in color, bigger than ordinary ants. (These ants do not eat the oranges but attack and kill the insects which do.)

We found Ma Jiang and the Orange Ants written by Barbara Ann Porte and illustrated by Annie Cannon, while the kids were in a storytelling session at the library last weekend.

We’ve been introducing them to folk tales and fables recently, and this title caught our eye because we were curious to find out what orange ants are, and how people earned a living selling orange ants in ancient China. This week, I have learnt something new I didn’t know before. 🙂


The Ma family earned a living selling orange ants to owners of orange groves. It did not necessarily yield a lot of money but they made enough to have food, shelter, clothes and medicine to put on ant bites, and lived happily enough. However, one day, the father and brothers were rounded up to serve in the emperor’s army, leaving Ma Jiang, her mother and her baby brother to fend for themselves.

As collecting wild nests of orange ants was a predominantly male job, requiring collectors to climb high into tall trees and into wild bamboo in the night, neither Jiang nor her mother were in a position to do this, and so they relied on making rush mat bags and other woven articles as an alternative source of income.

Times were hard and the children and their mother often went hungry as only the rich or lazy bought rush mat nets, most people made their own.  But one day, their fortune turns for the better when a beekeeper buys Jiang’s mother’s rush mat nets and a chicken cage and sandals because he finds these will be useful to stave off stings, and pays them in honey instead of money.

The family is glad for the honey, and they keep it in a gourd hung from the ceiling, and enjoy a little each day. One day, while eating, Jiang’s baby brother accidentally drips a puddle of honey onto the floor, attracting hundreds of little black ants.

This lends Jiang a brilliant idea to make a honey trap by smearing the inside of a rush mat bag with honey, reviving the business of selling orange ants without requiring dangerous night time climbing of trees.

Jiang’s mother was happy to be able to buy good things for the family and they prospered on the sale of the orange ants.

However, as they prepared the good food for the Lunar New Year, they could not help but miss Jiang’s father and brothers who had now been away for a year.

Then just three days before the end of the old year, Jiang and her mother and brother receive a pleasant surprise – her father and brothers return, released at last from the emperor’s service and the story ends happily as the family joyfully reunites with much to be grateful for.


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