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February 03, 2019 4 min read

 You probably have seen a lot of phase such as  "artificial oud", "artificial farming practices", "man-made oud", which are used to describe cultivated agarwood. These words when used can mislead the consumer believe that "artificial oud" is inferior products. 

Agarwood is a resinous compound produced by plants as a response to physical wound as well as pathogen attacks (Karlinasari et al. 2015). The sesquiterpenes found in agarwood are also produced as phytoalexins under stress. (Faizal, at al 2017). From this definition, to create agarwood, simply wound the tree. The problem is in the wild, it may take as long as 30 years or even more.

Again, the key here is not how old the Aquilaria tree is but the age of infection. In the wild, some Aquilaria can be 100 years old but perfectly healthy. If this tree was hewn down, it would be a waste as it has no economic value apart from being used as firewood. Aquilaria wood is very soft, it is unsuitable for timber use.

Wounding the Aquilaria tree to create agarwood is a scientific art. In the last article, we mentioned that Fungi Inoculation method was used. This time we will discuss another interesting and mind blowing method used: Ants

Please note that not all ants are suitable, the genus of ant is a top secret but here is how it works.

Ants are chosen and raised. They are fed with some variety of selected vegetable, once eaten, they then secrete a special light golden liquid which will be mixed with sugar cane, honey, coconut oil, and corn husk. This special blend will act as a catalyst when inoculating  to the existing wound of the Aquilaria trees, accelerating the agarwood creation process 

 What ants were found in Aquilaria trees? There are multiples genus of ants but there are limited studies about them which can "simulate" the process of agarwood creation.

Did you know that human is not the only one species practice farming for food,? What you may ask? Ants do agriculture too.

Some ant species  "grow" insects and fungi for food. In case of fungi which genus is Gongylidia , leafcutter ants grow them with leaves

Found principally in Latin America and the Caribbean, leafcutter ants inhabit the forest floor and construct an underground web of chambers where they "farm" and harvest their staple food, fungus. They create underground fungus "gardens" by clipping and gathering fresh vegetation and injecting the pieces with a fungal secretion that digests the often poisonous plants into an edible and nutritious mushroom form."  (Raine Forest Alliance)  

A side note, perhaps through invasion, in South East Asia, these ants are popular too.

Here is how it works

Previous article , we mentioned that Fungi Innoculation is one of the effective method of creating agarwood. Fungus-growing attine ants cultivate basidiomycete fungi for food. One cultivar lineage has evolved inflated hyphal tips (gongylidia) that grow in bundles called staphylae, to specifically feed the ants (H Henrik - ‎2014)

 

 

Source: Nature.com

 

Based on this habit, these ants are cultivated in host trees to produce gongylidia, which will be collected and squeeze to create an " ant cocktail" which will be used to innoculate Aquilaria trees. This method is actually using fungi (gongylidia, cultivated from ants which are cultivated from human) to create agarwood.

In short, with this method, these ants do not live in the Aquilaria as host trees.

  • Leafcutter ants are bred in different host trees with vegetables and leaves so they can grow gongylidia
  • Gongylidia are collected and processed in liquid form
  • This fungal liquid then mixed with special ingredients ( including coconut oil, corn husk) to create ant cocktail
  • The ant cocktail then will be innoculated into wounded Aquilaria trees to speed up the agarwood creation

So again, "artificial farming" or: man-made oud", is actually created by mimicking the nature, The rice we eat is man-made or made from farming, the fruits we eat are the result of agricultural practice. We grow our food to meet the demand to keep future sustainable. Isn't it the same with cultivated agarwood, 

 

What may NOT or may work 

Armored scale insects Grower: Rhopalomastix and  Melissotarsus  

These 2 species could produce silk to repair and seal damaged entrance to the tree host. 

 

Silk filaments by  Rhopalomastix can be seen (arrows). Photograph by Chui Shao Xiong

 

 

Source: Melissotarsus New Scientist 

Source: Click here

 They’re such committed burrowers that their second pair of legs points up, not down, so they can get a foothold in the tunnel roof as well as the floor.

Aggregation of naked diaspidids, together with two rare shields (on right). The latter is evidence that the secretory glands of ant-associated Morganella conspicuacontinue to be functional. Photos by Christian Peeters.

 These ants are one of the ant genera found in Aquilaria trees, they have the ability to excrete silk to seal and repair the tree wounds which may not quite beneficial for agarwood creation, They farm scaled insects and fungi for food and seal off the entrance when there was an external damage of the tree.

 Young (2019)

 Current methods for inducing the production of Agarwood from Aquilaria rely on drilling holes in the trunk (Akter et al. 2013), and this mayfavour the establishment of ant colonies and their diaspidids. Alternatively, the tunneling behavior of Rhopalomastix might help to “heal” the wounds over time, i.e., if ants are already living under the bark, induction methods for Agarwood may be less effective." 

 


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