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Formic Acid Dangers and Uses in Nature and in Humans

Updated on February 11, 2016
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Linda Crampton has a honors degree in biology. She has taught high school biology, chemistry, and other science subjects for many years.

A Florida carpenter ant produces a spray of formic acid as a defence mechanism.
A Florida carpenter ant produces a spray of formic acid as a defence mechanism. | Source

An Interesting and Useful Chemical

Formic acid is an irritating chemical present in the sprayed venom of some ant species and in the secretion released from some stinging nettles. It's dangerous at high concentrations, but at low concentrations it's very useful. Humans use formic acid as a food preservative, since it's an antibacterial substance. It’s also used to treat pests, to produce food and cosmetic additives and to help a variety of industrial processes to occur.

Our bodies make small quantities of formic acid from the methanol that we ingest, inhale or produce. Some of the methanol produced in the body is made from aspartame. The body converts aspartame into aspartic acid, phenylalanine and methanol. The methanol is then converted into formic acid. Researchers say that the formic acid in our body is generally too dilute to be dangerous, however.

Formic acid structural formula
Formic acid structural formula | Source

Formic Acid Structure and Properties

Formic acid is the simplest member of the carboxylic acid family and is also known as methanoic acid. Its molecular formula is HCOOH. The molecule is composed of a carboxyl group (COOH) with a hydrogen atom attached. In the carboxyl group the carbon atom has a double bond joining it to the oxygen atom and a single bond joining it to the hydroxyl (OH) group.

Formic acid can be made synthetically in laboratories. In nature it usually exists in the form of a colorless liquid. This liquid freezes at 8.3 degrees Celsius (46.9 degrees Fahrenheit) and boils at 100.7 degrees Celsius. (213.3 degrees Fahrenheit). It has a strong odor and is often described as having a "pungent" smell.

Yellow crazy ants are creating serious problems with the formic acid that they spray.
Yellow crazy ants are creating serious problems with the formic acid that they spray. | Source

Formic Acid in Ants

Formic acid got its name from “formica”, the Latin name for ant. An English naturalist named John Ray was the first person to isolate an acid from ants. In 1671 he distilled the crushed bodies of dead ants to extract the acid, which was eventually named formic acid.

Ants bite to protect themselves or to attack other creatures. They grab hold of their victim with their mandibles (jaws). Some ant species then sting the victim. The stinger is located at the tip of the abdomen and injects a toxic secretion. Instead of stinging, certain species of ants release a spray of venom from the end of their abdomens. This venom contains formic acid. Some ants bite but do not sting or spray toxic chemicals.

Members of the ant subfamily known as the Formicinae have an opening at the tip of their abdomen called an acidopore in place of a stinger. The acidopore releases a spray of formic acid from the ant's venom gland when necessary. Wood ants, yellow crazy ants and tawny crazy ants all belong to the Formicinae subfamily.

Thousands of Wood Ants Spray Formic Acid

Yellow Crazy Ants

Yellow crazy ants (Anoplolepis gracilipes) are invasive and very destructive insects. They neither bite nor sting, but they do spray formic acid to subdue their victims. The ants are yellow-brown in color and have long legs and antennae. They're known for behaving frantically when they're disturbed.

Yellow crazy ants are versatile creatures. They eat a wide variety of animal tissue as well as honeydew secreted by aphids and other insects. The ants are classified as predatory scavengers. A very worrying aspect of their lives is the ability to form huge supercolonies which have hundreds of queens.

The ants have caused some very serious damage to the populations of some animals, including the red crabs on Christmas Island and seabirds in Hawaii. They also interfere with human lives. Sometimes the ant population releases so much formic acid into the air around their nest that breathing becomes painful. Skin and eye contact with the acid is also painful.

Yellow Crazy Ants, Formic Acid and Hawaiian Seabirds

Like the yellow crazy ant, the tawny crazy ant releases a spray of formic acid as a chemical weapon. It also rubs its formic acid secretion over its body. The covering of acid protects it from the venom of the red imported fire ant. How this protection works is unknown.

Tawny Crazy Ants Detoxify Venom of Fire Ants

Fire Ants and Tawny Crazy Ants

The stinging venom of red imported fire ants (Solenopsis invicuta) contains alkaloids and some proteins but no formic acid. A fire ant bites to grab hold of a person's skin, then tucks its abdomen under its body so that the stinger can reach the skin and inject its chemicals. The fire ant then withdraws its stinger, rotates a short distance and stings again, repeating the process until it has formed a circle of stings.

Like the red imported fire ant, tawny crazy ants (Nylanderia fulva) were introduced to the United States from South America. The two species can be found in the same habitats. Researchers at the University of Texas have discovered an interesting phenomenon in relation to the ants. When a crazy ant is stung by a fire ant, the crazy ant curls its abdomen upwards to its mouth, secretes formic acid from its venom gland and then rubs the secretion over its body. The process is shown in the video above.

Although the research team doesn't know how the formic acid protects the crazy ant, they suggest that it may denature fire ant enzymes required for the alkaloid in the venom to penetrate cells.

Stinging nettles, or Urtica dioica
Stinging nettles, or Urtica dioica | Source

Formic Acid in Stinging Nettles

The leaves and stems of stinging nettles are covered with hollow, stinging hairs which have walls made of silica. When the hairs are touched, the tip comes off, exposing a needle-like structure which is attached to a venom sac at the base of the hair. The needle then injects the venom into the victim’s skin.

The poison of many stinging nettles contains formic acid, although scientists have discovered that other chemicals are also present. These probably contribute to the painful sting. The additional chemicals include acetylcholine, serotonin and histamine. Histamine is the substance that is released into our bloodstream from mast cells during an allergic reaction. Histamine causes inflammation, swelling and redness. The stinging hairs of some nettles contain oxalic acid and tartaric acid instead of a mixture containing formic acid.

Bees at work in a beehive; the larger queen is in the middle of the photo. Formic acid is used to kill mites in beehives.
Bees at work in a beehive; the larger queen is in the middle of the photo. Formic acid is used to kill mites in beehives. | Source

Formic Acid Uses

Since formic acid is an antibacterial agent, it's frequently added to the feed of farm animals to prevent the growth of bacteria. It's occasionally used as a preservative in human foods. Formic acid is also used to create artificial flavors for foods and drinks and artificial scents for perfumes. In addition, formic acid is used in leather tanning, in the processing of textiles and paper and in the conversion of latex from the rubber tree into rubber.

Some birds place living ants amongst their feathers, a behavior known as anting. The ants are very often - but not always - members of the subfamily Formicinae. Scientists don't yet know why birds ant. According to one theory, the formic acid that the ants release kills mites that are attacking the bird’s skin. Humans use formic acid for a similar purpose. Formic acid preparations are used to kill varroa and tracheal mites which invade honeybee hives and attack the bees.

Biology of Varroa Mites

Bee venom is a complex mixture of many chemicals. Some sources claim that the venom contains formic acid, but the latest research indicates that neither bee nor wasp venom contains formic acid.

Dangers of Formic Acid

The dangers of formic acid depend on its concentration. At higher concentrations formic acid is corrosive, has a strong smell and produces dangerous fumes. It produces burns and blisters on the skin and injures the eyes and the mucous membranes in the mouth, throat and respiratory system. Inhaling concentrated formic acid makes breathing difficult. Swallowing the concentrated acid causes severe ulcers (sores) to appear in the digestive tract as well as pain and nausea. Prolonged exposure to formic acid may produce liver or kidney damage.

Formic Acid Production from Methanol

Methanol is made inside our bodies from normal metabolic processes. It also enters the body from fruits and vegetables and their juices. In addition, humans produce methanol as well as aspartic acid and phenylalanine from the breakdown of aspartame, an artificial sweetener. Methanol is toxic, but most of us don't encounter enough of the chemical to be harmed.

Inside our bodies methanol is converted to formaldehyde, which is classified as a probable human carcinogen (cancer causer). However, the formaldehyde is rapidly transformed into formic acid and doesn’t collect in the body. The formic acid then leaves the body in urine or is changed into carbon dioxide and water.

Scientists say that the production of formic acid from methanol in humans only becomes a problem if there is a large amount of methanol in the body, as there would be in methanol poisoning. In this situation, enough formic acid could be made to create a condition called acidosis. Symptoms of acidosis include vision problems, blindness, memory loss, confusion, seizures, coma, low blood pressure and cardiac arrest.

Apples are very healthy, especially if they aren't peeled. The peel contains pectin, which is converted to methanol inside our body.
Apples are very healthy, especially if they aren't peeled. The peel contains pectin, which is converted to methanol inside our body. | Source

Methanol Production from Aspartame

We can’t avoid the normal creation of methanol in our bodies or its entry into the body from healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables, which should be part of our diet. We can control whether we want to add to the methanol load by ingesting foods or drinks sweetened by aspartame.

The use of aspartame is controversial. However, health agencies say that a person’s normal exposure to methanol, including the methanol produced from aspartame, is too low to cause health problems. They also say that aspartame is safe, provided the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) of 40 mg/kg body weight is not exceeded. There are claims that aspartame makes the symptoms of certain health disorders worse, but at the moment there is no scientific evidence to support these claims.

There is one situation in which aspartame is known to be harmful. Aspartame should not be consumed by people suffering from a genetic disorder called phenylketonuria. A person suffering from this disorder is unable to create the enzyme that changes phenylalanine into tyrosine. As a result, phenylalanine accumulates in the body. People with phenylketonuria must follow a low phenylalanine diet to avoid brain damage. Since aspartame breakdown produces phenylalanine, the sweetener must be avoided.

The Hoba meteorite in Namibia is the largest meteorite so far discovered. Meteorites may have carried formic acid to Earth.
The Hoba meteorite in Namibia is the largest meteorite so far discovered. Meteorites may have carried formic acid to Earth. | Source

Formic Acid in Space

Scientists think that formic acid may have played a role in the origin of life on Earth. The acid was first found in interstellar space in 1970 and has been found in meteorites that have reached Earth from space. Formic acid has a relatively simple structure and may have been involved in the formation of the more complicated amino acid and nucleic acid molecules found in living things.

Amino acids are the building blocks of the proteins inside living things. Nucleic acids are the building blocks of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) and RNA (ribonucleic acid). The DNA contains genetic instructions for making our bodies and for controlling its functions. It's located in the nucleus of cells. The code in the DNA "tells" the body which proteins to make. RNA has several vital roles in the body, including reading the DNA's instructions for making proteins, transporting these instructions out of the nucleus to the site of protein synthesis in the cell and then enabling the cell to make the proteins.

The origin of life is a fascinating topic to consider. The idea that chemicals were brought to the early Earth via meteorites is often suggested. It's interesting that a simple chemical such as formic acid is important in our lives today and may have been even more important in the distant past.

References and Further Reading

© 2011 Linda Crampton

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    • Chatkath profile image

      Kathy 6 years ago from California

      Very interesting stuff Alicia! I always learn so much by reading your hubs. Very well done!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the visit and the kind comment, Chatkath!

    • ellahall2011 profile image

      ellahall2011 6 years ago

      This is great Information, Thanks then.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you, ellahall2011.

    • Fossillady profile image

      Kathi 6 years ago from Saugatuck Michigan

      You have a very scientific brain Alicia, very interesting stuff, but I could never remember it all!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you, Fossillady!

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      swati verma 6 years ago

      Thanks for such an amazing information , l came to know it first time

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the visit and comment, swati verma!

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      martin the sprout 6 years ago

      Very interesting, wish i was as knowledgable

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you, martin the sprout. I appreciate your comment.

    • PADDYBOY60 profile image

      PADDYBOY60 5 years ago from Centreville Michigan

      I learned a lot on this hub. Thanks.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, PADDYBOY60. Thank you for the comment! It's nice to meet you.

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      Nori30 5 years ago

      Very nice! Its very interesting. :-)

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the comment, Nori30. Formic acid is an interesting chemical to write about!

    • profile image

      TheChemGuy 5 years ago

      a good article but a bit short and not very detailed for my taste. but i always think that, so from an analytical view good job on the article

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, TheChemGuy. Thanks for the comment. This hub is meant to be an overview of formic acid and its relation to living things. It was created for people who might not have a chemistry background and wasn't meant to be a detailed chemical description of the substance.

    • Natashalh profile image

      Natasha 5 years ago from Hawaii

      Wow, I had no idea that the human body produces menthol.

      I was bitten by a lot of ants just the other day. I quickly made a baking soda paste and spread it all over my ankles/feet. The base counteracts the ant's acid and dramatically reduced the inflammation for me. It was pretty cool to see a folk remedy actually work!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Natasha. Thanks for commenting and for describing your experience. It is very interesting when we discover that traditional methods of treating injuries and diseases actually work!

    • donabhatt profile image

      donabhatt 5 years ago from Hyderabad

      Great hub...it really takes patience and knowledge to write science meant for everybody.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the visit, donabhatt. I appreciate your comment.

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      4 years ago

      I saw a comment about "low detail" and "short," but for a high school freshman taking physical science for the first time, it was great info! I understood everything and learned some things.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the comment, T! I appreciate it.

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      Stanley law 4 years ago

      please advise--can i utilize it to clear gold chain?

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Stanley. Formic acid is used in some cleaning solutions, but I've never heard of it being used to remove dirt from gold jewelry. It's important that any formic acid cleaning solution is dilute. The concentrated acid is corrosive to human skin and air passages.

    • osaeoppongde profile image

      Deborah L. Osae-Oppong 4 years ago from Chicago, IL

      Fascinating article! Very comprehensive! The fact that ants are able to use it to sting their victims is interesting - do you know what effect the poison has on the prey, or predator for that matter? Is it a metabolic pathway that's disrupted?

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the comment, osaeoppongde! Formic acid is corrosive and damages tissues of humans and many other animals, but I don't know whether it interferes with metabolic pathways.

    • wowtgp profile image

      Rahul Parashar 4 years ago from Delhi, India

      This is a really informative and helpful hub.

    • wqaindia profile image

      Ashok Goyal 4 years ago from Rajpura 140401 Punjab India

      Master Piece of knowledge

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the comment, wqaindia!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much, wowtgp.

    • Steph Tietjen profile image

      Stephanie Tietjen 2 years ago from Albuquerque, New Mexico

      I read this because I'd suffered a painful stung by a fire ant and a swelled ankle. I was surprised, according to your writing, that it didn't contain formic acid. This was an extremely interesting read. Thanks

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the visit and the comment, Steph. Insect toxins are interesting to investigate, even though they can have painful effects, like your swollen ankle!

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      Richard Fortmann 23 months ago

      Today I was eating a peach and tasted an ant. It was strange so I tasted another. It seemed I could taste the ant before my tongue touched it. The acid taste was clean and quick like carbonic but unlike acetic. I liked it. Does anyone know about this?

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 23 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This sounds interesting! I know that some ants are edible, but I wouldn't want to try eating them myself unless I knew that the species was safe.

    • jbosh1972 profile image

      Jason 23 months ago from Indianapolis, IN. USA

      Fascinating article! I especially enjoyed the part about formic acid in space. It is quite paradoxal how a molecule so essential to life can be so toxic in certain situations. I would like to mention the concentrated acid is downright caustic not just irritant causing painful blisters.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 23 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the visit and the comment, jbosh1972.

    • profile image

      ramlochan yadav 12 months ago

      Very nice and useful. Thanks about this.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 12 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you, ramlochan yadav. I appreciate your visit.

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      Steve 8 months ago

      Alicia, good afternoon hope you are well.

      I have a couple of questions for you,, but let me explain, I work for poultry company and our team members have annual health checks, this year urine samples were taken and a couple of people had raised levels of formic acid in their urine. the reason for the urine test was, we use formaldehyde when cleaning houses and we wanted to see if they hhad levels of this in their system.

      So firstly would formaldehyde be present in the body as formic acid?

      What is the main entry route into the body? Is it by inhalation, contact with the skin.

      I know they use formic acid in poultry food as a preservative.

      I know there will probably be more questions once you read this and reply.

      kind regards

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Steve. Thank you for the interesting comment. Since I'm a science writer and educator but not a health professional, I think you should consult a public health agency about your situation. Formaldehyde is converted to formic acid in certain situations. I think you should definitely investigate how formaldehyde is entering the body of your team members (if it is), why there is an increased level of formic acid in their urine and whether this is a health problem. Professionals involved in public health should be able to help you. Good luck.

    • profile image

      Carson Taare 8 months ago

      I live in New Zealand and I'm in the middle of my end of year exams at high school. Acids is one of the topics in the exams and I thought this was very helpful and very interesting for someone my age.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Carson. I'm glad that you found the article interesting and helpful. Thank you for commenting.

    • profile image

      Ron 7 months ago

      Interesting article. Too bad that right next to it is a link saying how a "homeopathic formic ant remedy" relieves arthritis and gout.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 7 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the comment, Ron. I don't choose the links, but I know that they change quite frequently. Perhaps you'll prefer the next one that appears.

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      Николай 3 months ago

      Excellent work, well done! I always read your works with great pleasure, each time discovering something new.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much!

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      Infofreak 2 months ago

      Great stuff, but no mention of industrial uses of Formic acid,just a link would do,however we are into an environmental save the planet time so industry has to take a back seat, unless it's wave power, wind power,mrthane collection from cows.Good stuff thanks.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the comment, Infofreak. Industrial use of formic acid is an important topic, though it doesn't quite fit in with the theme of the article.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 6 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Grazie, Liborio Quinto.

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      Joe Miller 5 weeks ago

      Aloha- we have had the LFA introduced here on the Big Island and now up to 30% of our pets have issues with a clouding over of their eyes. They are saying it is from the LFA bites and the venom in their bloodstream but I have noted that a lot of these pets only have this issue of blindness in only one eye and no one has ever documented an actual ant biting an eyeball. It is my belief that another substance that found its way here (the Rapid Ohia Tree Death fungus) that may be the culprit and that they are not doing the correct research on our pets blindness by only claiming the LFA as the problem. The LFA was actually here longer than the OTF problem. And the blindness only began after the OTF began killing our trees. Can you possibly shed some light on our issue and help save Hawaii Pets?? I would happily share my research and offer a cabin if you would like to visit here and help. Mahalo Nui Loa Rev. Joe Miller hulahipshawaii@hotmail.com.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 4 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This sounds like a horrible situation. I hope the real cause of the blindness is discovered, whether it's due to fire ant bites, a fungus, or another cause. I'm not a research scientist so I wouldn't be able to help you. I hope someone can, though.

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