Disturbingly Slender Waists

Miriam Rothschild

This is a stunning book. Overwhelming. It achieves the impossible – combining excellent systematics (without dulling the senses) with natural history, biology, biochemistry, and a wealth of extraordinarily interesting detail. I have no doubt that E.O. Wilson is the most distinguished biologist of our times, but it is surprising, even so, that he not only combines profound knowledge of these ‘little creatures who run the world’ with considerable insight into the future trends of biological thought and progress, but manages to involve us personally in the ant world. The book is divided into 20 sections and it is worth listing them: the importance of ants; the colony life cycle; altruism and the origin of the worker caste; colony odour and kin recognition; queen numbers and domination; communication; caste and division of labour; social homeostasis and flexibility; foraging strategies, territory and population regulation; the organisation of species; symbiosis among ant species; symbiosis with other anthropods; symbiosis among ants and plants; the specialised predators; the army ants; the fungus-growers; the harvesting ants; weaver ants; collecting, culturing, observing. The illustrations, furthermore, are first-rate, giving adequate scientific data but also agreeable portraits and a feeling of swarming activity, in some cases tinged with horror. No doubt a feeling of anxiety engendered by vast numbers – whether of men or mites – is a genetic trait common to most of us. The joint author of this magnum opus, Bert Hölldobler, is himself a skilled and original myremecologist, an infectious, ebullient enthusiast and great photographer: he is able to bring considerable grist to Wilson’s mill.

The book begins by emphasising the importance of ants in our world. We are apt to think of Japan as an unusually densely populated country, with its 120 million human inhabitants occupying 377,708 square kilometres, but when we read that along the Ishigari coast of the Northern Island of Hokkaido a super-colony of the ant Formica yessensis contains 306 million workers and 1,080,000 queens, occupying a mere 2.7 square kilometres, we suddenly become aware that Japan belongs to the ants, not to the Japanese. When one considers that these insects are apparently impervious to hard radiation, that colonies exposed to cesium-based irradiation seem unaffected, and that some species survive when exposed to industrial pollution, then one may feel that the future as well as the past may well belong to the ants.

This group of insects can be described as a hundred-million-year success story. The ants and termites compose one-third of the biomass of the tropical rainforests of the Brazilian Amazon. Wilson ascribes their worldwide ecological dominance (they are only absent from the tops of the highest mountains, Antarctica, Iceland, Greenland and Polynesia east of Tonga) to their close connection with the ground: ‘the first group of eusocial predatory insects that lived and foraged primarily in the soil.’ Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Another key to the ants’ success is their social organisation, a rare evolutionary achievement which gives them an advantage over solitary insects. For one thing, it allows two or more generations to overlap in the society and permits care of the young by adults and a division of labour: kings and queens, on the one hand, and non-reproductive workers, on the other. Wilson also emphasises the importance of the so-called metapleural gland, which secretes phenylacetic acid and is a substance active against bacteria and fungi. The ants appear to disseminate this throughout their nests. Without a good defence against such organisms, life in the soil would be difficult if not impossible. Although these insects have diverged and evolved into an estimated eight thousand different species, all but a few phyletic lines of arboreal ants have hung onto the highly characteristic and important metapleural gland, which distinguishes them from the related bees and wasps and other Hymenoptera.

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