An odorous house ant. Photo by Brian Gratwicke/Flickr
RALEIGH, N.C., June 8 (UPI) -- Sommeliers have a nose for a wine's bouquet. Cheesemongers posses an olfactory system built for the stink of cheese. Clint Penick is an expert ant-sniffer.
Penick, an entomologist at North Carolina State, recently set out to prove that the odorous house ant (Tapinoma sessile) offers up an aroma of blue cheese -- not of rotting coconut, as so many have claimed.
To do so, Penick organized an ant-smelling survey. Penick polled dozens of visitors at the annual "BugFest," an educational event held at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Participants confirmed Penick's superior nostrils. They agreed: The ant smells like blue cheese.
Penick and his friend Adrian Smith -- a postdoc researcher at the University of Illinois who studies chemical communication in social insects -- then employed a more precise scientific technique to identify the source of the ant's smell. Using a fiber and a measuring method called gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, the scientists absorbed the smells of blue cheese, coconut and the odorous house ant.
The chemical profiles of the odors of the blue cheese and ants were very similar -- combinations of a class of chemicals called methyl ketones. Coconut's smell was chemically dissimilar.
However, when Penick and Smith tested the smell of rotten coconut (using a coconut he buried in his backyard), they found the same methyl ketones-producing Penicillium mold that gives blue cheese its pungent aroma.
In other words, everyone was right.
"This was something Adrian and I did for fun -- it's not something we spent tax dollars on," Penick said in a press release. "But while this started out as a joke, we got some interesting findings."
"For one thing, we've learned something new about one of the most common household pest species in the United States, and it's something people can use to describe the species to homeowners, students, and entomologists."
But Penick and Smith also found that Penicillium molds are responsible for the ant's strong scent. But what purpose do these molds serve?
"We think it may have beneficial antimicrobial properties, but that remains to be explored."
Penick and Smith detailed their experiment in the journal American Entomologist.