Susanne Foitzik is a proud myrmecologist: an entomologist who specializes in ants (it was a new vocabulary for me too). Her laboratory at the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich studies the dynamics between slave-forming ant species that capture ants of other species and make them work for them, and the host species that exploit them. What genetic changes did a kind of hardworking worker ants like to make? Temnothorax longispinosus into devastating hordes of slavers like Temnothorax americanus?
And what causes the enslaved ant workers to rise in riot and kill their oppressor's puppets? (This is not metaphorical; it actually happens). Ant eggs and larvae do not yet have a species-specific smell, so the enslaved nannies who look after them believe that they are raising the young of their own colony. Once the babes reach the doll stage, they stink like the slave makers they are meant to be and their caretakers find they have been betrayed. At this point, "they bite the defenseless young insects to death, tear them to shreds, and throw them out of the nesting chamber."
A work of love
Dr. Foitzik really, really loves ants – even the slave-making style. This love is expressed on every page of her new book "Empire of Ants: The Hidden Worlds and Extraordinary Lives of the Little Conquerors of the Earth", which was written together with Olaf Fritsche. She loves them so much that she decided to start each chapter with her adorable drawings of different species of ants that are involved in her daily activities (see example above).
She writes that there are at least 16,000 known species of ants on earth, and while she does not introduce us to each one, we encounter many outstanding personalities. There are Anoplolepis gracilipeswho have favourited Yellow Crazy Ant, an invasive species that has taken over Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean since the 1990s, killing tens of millions of the native Christmas Island red crabs. Jaglavak is the drifting ant that the Morfu in North Cameroon refer to as the prince of insects and who oblige them to fight and drive away termites that invade the walls of their homes. And Myrmelachista schumanni Make the monoculture "devil's gardens" in the jungles of Peru and Brazil by killing every plant except for the individual species they cultivate as hosts for their nests. Enlarge /. The author lovingly introduces each chapter with her own hand-drawn images.
Then there is Odontomachus bauri, with mandibles that snap together in 130 millionths of a second at 143 mph – "one of the fastest phenomena recorded in wildlife." No prey can escape. These jaws are also used for movement: when one of these ants points their jaws on the ground and bites, the game catapults them through the air.
Ant societies are meticulously efficient and organized; Everyone has a job that they do without question, dissatisfaction or hesitation. The queens lay eggs. Various workers tend the larvae, build and maintain the nest, and look for and look for food. The soldiers guard the entrance to the nest and find and kill prey. Older leaf cutter ants cut leaves and bring them back so that younger leaf cutter ants can feed the fungus that the colony is growing for food.
Oh, and the males? "Male ants are little more than bundles of sperm in flight and are by far the most boring ants in a perfectly organized matriarchal state," writes Dr. Foitzik. They develop from unfertilized eggs and after a chance to shed their sperm, they die and are eaten by anyone who finds them, often their sisters.
A first-person story
We characterize these ants with human labels: boy scouts, gatherers, wet nurses, queens, soldiers, even farmers and shepherds. But as Dr. As Foitzik points out, ants only take on their assigned roles because of how genetics work and natural selection. They are little machines. We have free will and moral and rational thinking. Ant roles are not human roles, and ant societies are not human societies. We only see them and describe them that way because we can hardly imagine any other.
That seems to have been the trend in poppy science books ever since The immortal life of Henrietta is missing, this is told from the first person perspective and shows the author very prominently. We hear of all the trials and tribulations poor Dr. Foitzik and her fellow myrmecologists have to go through in their ant studies both in the field and in the laboratory. They all get dirty; Your research topics will bite and sting them and cause them to be arrested by customs agents. Sometimes, to their chagrin, the ants even appear on menus.
The actual research is not easy either. Apparently, it can be very difficult to distinguish people from one another in the colony they are studying. Extracting and disassembling the ants' tiny brains can be technically challenging. This can be a tiresome read as the myrmecologists are believed to have chosen their own path; Nobody forced them to crawl around digging up ant colonies, take them home on airplanes, and cut them apart.
Overall, however, Empire of Ants provides a great overview of the life cycles, communication, and colony formation of ants. Here you can find really fascinating depictions of some of the stranger species as described above. It ends with sketching the way in which our world and society intersect with theirs. If bugs are your thing (and yes, I know ants aren't technically bugs), they're worth checking out.