I have a couple of questions for You, my dear readers. Some things I have always wanted to know. You are enlightened and I demand straight answers, if you happen to sit on first-hand information.


In 1671, the English naturalist John Ray was the first person to describe the isolation of formic acid “by the distillation of large numbers of ants“. Apparently, this method was used for centuries before the first synthetic route was described (acidic hydrolysis of hydrogen cyanide – another not so nice compound). I suppose thousands of ant hills, and hence billions of ants, must have been slaughtered for this purpose alone over the years.

Throughout our (dark) history – except from ants – what other animals have humans tried to distill? Anything else successful? Anything notoriously unsuccessful? How do you get the idea, to distill animals, in the first place?



7 Responses to The discovery of formic acid raises questions

  1. joakim says:

    Isn’t lice used to color red candy, or is that just another urban myth?

    • drfreddy says:

      I am familiar with that story, yes. Google Scholar, here I come! I doubt, however, distillation is used in the process, but grinding and extracting animals is perhaps equally evil. Do we have anything on CUTE animals? Dolphins, panda or koala bears – anyone?

  2. Tynchtyk says:

    Here is isolation of ethylquinone from beetles without killing them 🙂

  3. milkshake says:

    Getting volatile compounds out of (a large quantity of live) insects has been the starting point of every pheromone research project

  4. drfreddy says:

    Note to self: “From 12,000 snails he was able to isolate 1.4 g of dye.”

    J. Chem. Educ. 2001, 78, 1442-1443 (DOI: 10.1021/ed078p1442)

  5. Liz says:

    Joakim – I think you are thinking of the scale insect from which cochineal is derived:

    The scale insect is often mistakenly referred to as a beetle – the blogger Bug Girl gets particularly riled about this particular taxonomic error:

    Hope that helps!

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