Good Reading : July 2010
JULY 2010 ı goodreading 51 in a book, and so I focus my nar rative on a few remarkable ants. I start with the marauder ant, taking my time both because this species was my own introduction to ants and because it exemplifies behaviours that come up repeatedly, such as foraging and division of labour. Thereafter, subjects are organised, in a crude way at least, by the ant approximations of human societies throughout history -- from the earliest hunter gatherer bands and nomadic meat eaters (ar my ants), to pastoralists (weaver ants), slave societies (Amazon ants), and far mers (leafcutter ants) -- ending up, at last, with the world conquering Argentine ant, with its hordes of trillions now sweeping across Califor nia. In this book, I will consider what it means to be an individual, an organism, and part of a society. Ants and humans share features of social organisation because their societies and ours need to solve similar problems. There are parallels as well between an ant colony and an organism, such as a human body. How do ant colonies -- sometimes described as 'superorganisms' because of this resemblance -- reconcile their complexities to function as integrated wholes? Whose job is it to provide food, dispose of waste, and raise the next generation -- and what can ants teach us about perfor ming these tasks? To find out, let's begin our adventures among the ants. Strength in numbers 'We have three kinds of ants here,' declared Mr Beeramoidin, the forestry officer at the village of Sullia in India. 'A black one, a big red one, and a small red one that bites.' I was 24, a graduate student on a quest for the ant I had reason to believe had one of the most complexly organised societies in existence. A column of dust-speckled sunlight emblazoned a rectangle on the floor too bright to look at directly -- a reminder of the intense dry heat outside. It was late November, and I was wor ried my choice of season wasn't giving me the best weather for ant hunting. As Mr Beeramoidin spoke, his round, bespectacled head rocked from side to side. I had lear ned that this meant his attention was friendly and focused on me, and though I had only been in India a month, I had already adopted the same habit. I also found myself chewing betel nut, wearing a Gandhi-style lungi around my waist and flip-flops known locally as chapels on my feet, and using words like lakh, meaning a hundred thousand, to describe the number of workers in an ant colony. Rocking my head in tur n, I told Mr Beeramoidin it was likely that scores of distinctive ants lived within a stone's throw of his office, though even an experienced person would need a strong magnifier to tell many of them apart. I sought just one of them, Pheidologeton diversus, a species to which I later gave the name 'marauder ant'. In 1903, Charles Thomas Bingham, an Irish military officer stationed in Burma, provided detailed and theatrical descriptions of this ant. In one memorable passage, he wrote that 'one large nest ... was for med under my house in Moulmein. From this our rooms were periodically invaded by swarms, and every scrap of food they could find, and every living or dead insect of other kinds, was cleared out.' The locals found the swar ms overpowering. 'When these ants take up their abode in any numbers near a village in the jungles, they become a terrible nuisance. ... I knew of a Karen village that had absolutely to shift because of the ants. No one could enter any of the houses day or night, or even pass through the village, without being attacked by them.' In spite of the vividness of Captain Bingham's report, the group remained a biological mystery. I had arrived in India in the fall of 1981, primed to explore the social lives of the minor, media, and major workers of Pheidologeton diversus. M y first stop had been Bangalore, more specifically its prestigious university, the Indian Institute of Science. My host was Raghavendra Gadagkar, a professor whose subject was the social behavior of wasps. He believed in learning from experience and smiled at my naiveté and youthful enthusiasm. Rather than teaching me how to eat rice without utensils, in the local fashion, for instance (the nuances of handling hot food bare-handed are many), he dropped me at the door of a local restaurant, recommended I order the 'plate meal,' and came back for me an hour later. During that first lunch I spilled more than I ate. Bangalore was going through a dry spell, and I had trouble finding any Pheidologeton. Raghavendra recommended I try the Wester n Ghats, a chain of low mountains famous for its forests and wildlife, just inland of the wester n coastline of India. On the road from Bangalore to the coast was a village named Sullia. I was told it had a forestry office where I would find both accommodations and advice. The next day, I lear ned a basic fact about Indian bus drivers: they were trained to accelerate around blind curves as if suicide were a career expectation. After a stomach-chur ning ride, I was dropped at the drowsy center of Sullia. I hoofed it to the forestry office, where I was delivered into the presence of Mr Beeramoidin, who listened attentively to my explanation of ant diversity and then told me the guesthouse was full. Afterward, out under the roasting sun, my nerves jangling at the thought of the har rowing six-hour ride back to Bangalore, I kicked a tree in frustration -- and got my first taste of Pheidologeton diversus. Hundreds of the tiny minor workers stor med from the earth, the major worker among them looking like an elephant among pygmies. Even Mr Beeramoidin gave an impressed whistle, conceding with an enthusiastic rocking of his head that Sullia may be more of an ant haven than he thought. Struck by my preternatural ant- locating skills, Mr Beeramoidin promised to find me a place to stay. Indian bus drivers ... were trained to accelerate around blind curves as if suicide were a career expectation.