Tales from the Ant World

Edward O. Wilson / Liveright / 240 pages

Tales from the Ant World, by famed naturalist E. O. Wilson, is full of interesting, absorbable facts about ants (at the time of writing 15,438 species had been recognized, with Wilson estimating almost twice that number likely yet to be discovered), as well as humorous anecdotes about Wilson’s childhood, where he found his passion for ants. A child more at home in the wilds and caves of Alabama than with classmates, he knew early on that he wanted to become a nature expert. After toying with long-legged flies, Wilson settled on ants after encountering a migrating swarm of army ants in his backyard accompanied by hanger-on scavengers—silverfish and various small beetles. At the age of 13, Wilson discovered the first known colony of fire ants (an invasive species) in the United States, near the docks in Mobile, Alabama. 

Wilson went on to study entomology and ants at the University of Alabama before moving to Harvard for his doctorate, where he stayed. He was appalled at mass pesticide use in attempts to (unsuccessfully) eradicate the fire ants, and he rues missing a meeting with Rachel Carson, who was too sick to travel. She went on to publish her revolutionary book, Silent Spring, which he lauds for effectively tackling the pesticide crisis and forever changing the US environmental movement. 

Wilson has traveled around the world to explore and research all kinds of ants, from species living in total darkness in caves to the fiercest of ants, the Camponotus femoratus of the Amazon rain forest, which spray copious amounts of formic acid when threatened. He helped discover pheromones and their source in ants. In the book, he explains how ants can find their way even when seemingly lost, and how he used their technique to find his way after becoming lost (partly due to an overfriendly parrot) in the Amazon rainforest. His passion for ants and their incredible abilities are clearly demonstrated throughout the book, and the list of his accomplishments in all things ant related is incredible.