Join Stephen Reid, our secondhand maestro, every month here as he takes a closer look at a couple of titles from his shelves.
Ants: Their Structure, Development and Behavior by William Morton Wheeler
Columbia University Press, New York. Hardcover. 1926 Reprint of the original 1910 Edition. No Dust jacket. Blue cloth boards with title/author gold embossed on the spine. Xxv,663pp., 281 diagrams, illustrations and photographs, appendices, bibliography, index. Some light spotting and age browning on the top edge otherwise Very Good condition. $50.00.
Ants are as old as the dinosaurs. They arose in the mid-Cretaceous Period—120 million years ago. The dinosaurs perished in the mass extinction event of 66 million years ago, when a 10–15 km wide (6–9 mile) asteroid slammed into the Earth at the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico. The impact—the crater was 180kms (110 miles) wide—caused such climate disruption it wiped out 75% of the Earth’s species. The ants survived. They not only survived, they thrived. Today there are an estimated 22,000 species of ants. Some 12,700 have been classified. Ants comprise up to 25% of the Earth’s animal biomass. A recent BBC nature documentary claimed that there were an estimated 100 trillion ants on the planet. That’s 100,000,000,000,000!
A large proportion of that number have paid a visit to our house this last summer, driving us to distraction. So, when this volume arrived in a collection late last year I claimed it from the shelves and dipped into it with the adage of ‘know thy enemy’ in mind. My opinion of ants—when I thought of them at all—may have been moulded at an impressionable age by my first viewing, and several subsequent viewings through the decades, of the classic Creature Feature thriller THEM. Made in 1954, it featured giant, radiation-mutated ants running amok in the New Mexico Desert. One of their human victims is found a battered, lifeless husk ‘with enough formic acid in him to kill twenty men!’ New-born Queen ants take flight and establish a nest within the maze of storm drains under Los Angeles, where the insect hordes are finally beaten after an epic struggle.
I was bought to ponder otherwise though, on the usefulness of ants, from the dedication page of this volume which selects a reflection by 18th Century English cleric and naturalist William Gould (1715–1799), taken from his An Account of English Ants (1747): The Subject indeed is small, but not inglorious. The Ant, as the Prince of Wisdom is pleased to inform us, is exceeding wise. In this Light, it may, without Vanity, boast of its being related to you, and therefore by right of Kindred merits your Protection.
William Morton Wheeler (1865–1937) was a Harvard professor and the foremost Myrmecologist of his day. Morton in fact coined the word—from the Greek myrmex, ‘ant’ and logos, ‘study’—to describe a specialised a branch of Entomology focused on the scientific investigation of ants. This book is the fruit of a lifetime’s study. Wheeler examined ants in terms of social organization, and in 1910 he delivered a now famous lecture on the The Ant-Colony as an Organism, which later pioneered the idea of super-organisms. This is a very handsome volume indeed. The beautifully detailed, hand drawn illustrations throughout—for example in Chapter III: The Internal Structure of Ants—are worth the price of the volume alone. Wheeler’s book remained the standard work on the subject until the appearance of E. O Wilson and Bert Hölldobler’s encyclopaedic volume The Ants (1990).
Edward O. Wilson (1929-) is the current world authority on ants and followed Wheeler into Harvard. He was heavily influenced as a teenager by Wheeler’s work: ‘When I was 16 and decided I wanted to become a myrmecologist, I memorized his book’. I conclude by noting that the remarkable industriousness of ants has been recognised by humans since Biblical times. In the Book of Proverbs, King Solomon advises his lazy son to look to the ants: Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise: Which having no guide, overseer, or ruler, Provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest. Proverbs 6: 6-8.
Fortunately for us, two distinguished lifetimes have been spent in industrious investigation of the fascinating—and formidable—Formicidae. Stephen Reid
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