Eight decades of observing ants and their amazing adventures

Barbara J King

THE WASHINGTON POST – When biologist Edward O Wilson heads into a forest to study ants, he sometimes carries a portable cafeteria. The plaster-of-Paris device features two rooms, one that lets in more light than the other. Wilson places ants inside, then into the brighter room adds soil, leaf litter and wood scooped up from near the insects’ colony. The ants gravitate toward the buffet of mites, spiders, earthworms and beetles hidden in the soil, make their cafeteria selections, and carry them next door to the darker chamber that they prefer.

This kind of experiment has kept Wilson fascinated with ants for eight decades. In Tales From the Ant World, the latest of his more than 30 books, Wilson wrote, “I have not until this book told the amazing stories of myrmecology as a physical and intellectual adventure – if you will, an adventure story.” With its modest and sometimes amusing tone, the book is a delight – and may coax readers to take up ant-watching themselves.

“The love of Nature is a form of religion,” Wilson observed, “and naturalists serve as its clergy.” If that’s so, Wilson got religion early. A child whose parents divorced when he was 8, Wilson was indifferent to his schoolwork, a situation exacerbated by his attending 16 schools in 16 cities through 11 grades. He reserved his enthusiasm for exploring the natural environment in places like Alabama and Rock Creek Park in Washington.

In 1942, at age 13, Wilson created what is now called the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory (ATBI), a widely used census of all species of a chosen group of organisms in a single place. For teenage Wilson, it was ants in a vacant lot in Mobile, Ala. He found a variety of species familiar to him, then one nest teeming with ants strange and unexpected. “It turned out to be the imported fire ant Solenopsis invicta, the first record in the northern hemisphere,” which he called “the find of a lifetime.” These South American ants – a mid-century example of an invasive species – had hitched a ride in cargo bound for Mobile from Argentina and Uruguay.

Young Wilson felt an overwhelming drive “to become an expert in some aspect of natural history, and to learn the science supporting it.” To note that he achieved his goal makes for vast understatement. He went on to a decorated academic career at Harvard University and to fame as an author, igniting furious scientific controversy with his 1975 book, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, which attempted to explain the biological basis of social behaviour in animals, including humans. Wilson has twice won the Pulitzer Prize in non-fiction, in 1979 for On Human Nature and in 1991 for The Ants, co-authored with Bert Hölldobler. The populariser of the biophilia concept (humans feel an urge to connect with other creatures) and the conservation project aiming to set aside half the Earth to protect biodiversity, Wilson is today considered the world’s top ant expert.

In Tales From the Ant World, his explanations of ant “gender” (most scientists would grant to insects only “sex”) and raiding behaviour make for exciting reading. Because males live inside the nest except for the one-time act of mating, any ant we may notice is female, including the soldiers. Males – Wilson described them as “pathetic creatures” and “flying sperm missiles” – contribute nothing except that single mating, and then they die. Females are tiny powerhouses that rule and defend the nest and, of course, ensure the future. The queen’s power is absolute: She makes a choice either to allow a single sperm through a tube inside her body, resulting in a female egg, or to close off the tube, resulting in a male egg.

In Mozambique, Wilson studied the Matabele ant, a species that favours termites as food. Watching these ants raid a termite nest, he declared, “is one of the most dramatic wildlife spectacles of Africa.” One ant heads off to scout a termite mound. If she discovers a way to get inside, she lays down a chemical trail on her way back home. This trail recruits a large group of female raiders that rush into the mound and may carry off up to 10 dead termites each in their mandibles. Despite this level of Matabele aggression, Wilson anoints a garden ant of the Amazonian rainforest, Camponotus femoratus, with the “most ferocious” status. Ant tales ensue from the Amazon, indeed from all corners of the world, including the Australian outback and Mount Washington in New Hampshire.

We humans may wish to see ourselves as the Earth’s dominant species, but this assumption overlooks the ecological facts. “On arrival in a new land,” Wilson writes, “ants penetrate every available nest site, take control of most available food sources, and in so doing create an arthropod hegemony that controls every level of the land from the highest canopy to the lowest root mass.” Ants sculpt our planet, a process that began more than 100 million years ago. Take that, human ego!

At any one time, some 10,000 trillion ants of 15,000 species roam the Earth. Wilson offers suggestions for how we can better appreciate the ones that dwell near us. Find ants in your kitchen? Remember that they carry no disease and are fun to observe: Feed them, don’t smush them. These ants are “especially fond of honey, sugar water, chopped nuts, and canned tuna.” For Wilson, these home visitors – like ants everywhere – are beautiful little animals to be cherished.