By Steve Donoghue
Ants just naturally prompt comparisons with space aliens, and renowned naturalist and emeritus Harvard University professor Edward O. Wilson isn’t two pages into his latest book, “Tales From the Ant World,” before he’s making the comparison himself. He proposes that his readers conduct what’s probably the last home experiment that would ever cross their minds: Put a thumbnail-size crumb of food on your kitchen floor or in your kitchen sink and hope it summons some ants. “There will follow,” Wilson writes, “social behavior so alien to human experience that it might as well be on some other planet.”
Wilson has been studying ants for 70 years, and it’s from the depths of that devotion that he asks his readers, “Why should these wonderful little insects not visit your kitchen?” After all, they carry no diseases, they hunt and destroy insects that do, and a human is roughly a million times bigger than an ant, and maybe somewhere there’s a human who’s calmed down enough to read those disclaimers after first reading the part about deliberately leaving food out for ants.
“Tales From the Ant World” is a rapturously unapologetic hymn of praise to the roughly one quadrillion ants on the planet (here, as in earlier books and many a lecture, Wilson points out that if humans weren’t so conspicuously the dominant species on Earth, visitors from another world would immediately call this “the planet of the ants”). Wilson has encountered a great many of the world’s 15,000 ant species, both in the laboratory and in the wild, and he has genial, involving stories about all of them.
It’s to his credit that he doesn’t sugarcoat the harsh realities of the ant world, which is overwhelmingly matriarchal (all the explorer ants, warrior ants, and worker ants you’ll ever see will almost certainly be female), routinely cannibalistic (ants not only eat their dead, they also eat their sick or wounded), and fiercely militaristic (Wilson calls ants the most warlike animals on Earth and rather succinctly describes their warfare as “total and myrmicidal”). “There is nothing,” he writes, “I can even imagine in the lives of ants that we can or should emulate for our own moral betterment.”
His fascination with them virtually glows in these pages, despite the fact that, try though he might, he can’t soften the main impression readers are likely to have when they finish the book: that by and large, ants aren’t very nice people.
Some are worse than others, of course, and at one point Wilson elaborates on the worst culprits, the ants you especially wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. This list includes the infamous fire ants, leaf cutter ants, and bull ants, who don’t even wait until a bystander does something wrong. “Sentries on the nest surface turn and watch as you approach,” Wilson writes. “If you come close, they will start to walk toward you, and it will be a mistake to linger.” (The worst offender, according to Wilson? In his “thoroughly bitten, stung, and formic-acid-sprayed judgment” it’s Camponotus femoratus, the epiphyte garden-ant.)
Wilson, who (along with Bert Hölldobler) literally wrote the book on the subject with 1990′s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Ants,” liberally intersperses “Tales From the Ant World” with snatches of his own life story that will be familiar to readers of his 1994 autobiography, “Naturalist.” These reminiscences, added to the necessarily episodic nature of his field anecdotes, can occasionally give “Tales” a scattershot “greatest-hits” feel. But the main thread running through the whole book is an intense empathy for these weird beings Wilson has devoted his life to studying.
“Given that the more than seven billion human beings and ten thousand trillion ants jointly rule the terrestrial world,” he writes (viruses and bacteria would beg to differ, if they could read), “it is of some importance that we are able to talk to them, no less than if we had landed on an exoplanet inhabited by another eusocial species.” Any such communication would need to happen through scent and touch, through the pheromones that ants use to convey surprisingly complex messages to each other (they’re referred to here as “geniuses of olfaction”). At Harvard Wilson conducted extensive studies of such pheromones in fire ants, and the chapters in which he describes the nuances of that communication are the book’s most amazing.
“Tales From the Ant World” is full of just such amazement, most of it presented with the infectious enthusiasm that only a life-long teacher and popularizer like Wilson could muster. True, it probably won’t convince you to leave food out for your kitchen ants, but really, could any book do that?
Steve Donoghue is a book reviewer living in Boston.