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Ants That Smell Like Blue Cheese!

If you can’t seem to get the smell of last night’s dinner out of your nose, it might not just be the leftovers in the fridge. According to a new study by Dr. Clint Penick of North Carolina State University, the common odorous house ant (Tapinoma sessile) emits a smell most similar to blue cheese. Which is nothing short of groundbreaking for those of us still trying to track down that stray scent in our kitchens.

The study was conducted at the 2013 North Carolina Bug Fest (where you can not only smell bugs, but eat them too). A sample of 143 insect enthusiasts identified the scent as either “rotten coconut,” “blue cheese,” “rancid butter,” or “other,” which allowed them to write in a smell. Blue cheese was the winner, with 38%. Of those write-in candidates, the study’s authors mention that one girl suggested that the ants smell like her doctor.

The scientists didn’t leave it there—after analyzing the smelliest compounds in blue cheese and the ants, methyl-ketones seemed to be the culprit. Although coconut doesn’t have these stinky ketone groups, the mold that grew when Penick buried one in his back yard did. In fact, the Penicilliium microbes used to give blue cheese its characteristic color were the same ones responsible for the mold. We don’t recommend putting them on your burger, though.

For Penick, this was a victory. He had always been frustrated by T. sessile’s inability to live up to its internet reputation as the “coconut ant.” Finally, with the help of bug enthusiasts, he had disproven another internet rumor.

You might notice this blue cheese smell a little more if you live in an urban area. In a study done last year, odorous ants were found to develop “super-colonies” in cities. We’ll have to wait for the future sci-fi hit Invasion of the Cheese-Ants. Until then, you should probably call an exterminator and become an expert on blue cheese.

Feature Photo Credit: blue cheese + “ants on a white background” by BERNATSKAYA OXANA | Shutterstock

Robbie Herbst

Robbie Herbst is a summer editorial intern and an undergrad at Dartmouth College, where he enjoys access to the unimaginably quaint cheese-makers of the upper valley. When he isn’t writing or playing violin, he likes to take bricks of Cabot Extra Sharp Cheddar on long hikes through the White Mountains.