Topic of ant lecture is no diminutive matter

by David Hyland

Using insect traps, sprays and even shoe heels can kill a few ants. But rarely can they wipe out an entire colony.
Their highly organized structures and communication makes ants resilient said Berthold H”lldobler, an ant expert and Pulitzer prize-winning author, during a lecture Wednesday at the Bell Museum of Natural History.
H”lldobler, chair of behavioral physiology and sociobiology at the Theodor Boveri Institute for Bioscience at the University of WÅrzberg in Germany, lectured to a crowd of about 350 on how ants communicate.
Ants develop a social system that helps keep their population growing. Such a structure only develops in 3 percent of all species, he said.
“The ants are really the little creatures that run this world,” he said.
H”lldobler backed up his statement by adding that ants are so numerous that their total weight is equal to that of all humans.
Insects also make up a majority of the biomass — the estimated weight of all species — on earth. The estimated 20,000 ant species make up 75 percent of the total insect biomass.
Working together and dividing the labor, an ant colony is a “super-organism,” one in which the whole is greater than the individuals, he said.
The key features contributing to the system’s success are communication and cooperation, he added.
There are two main ways they communicate. By releasing specific chemicals on the ground through glands, ants communicate through a chemical language. In other instances, they make movements with their antennae which other ants can detect through the vibrations.
H”lldobler also discussed how ants conduct foreign policy, or interact with rival ant nests.
By sizing up their opponents, in a ceremonial event similar to one found in primitive human cultures, H”lldobler said the ants can estimate the strength of their enemies and decide whether to attack or retreat.
Ecology student Matt Coller said he enjoyed the lecture. His favorite part was learning about ants located in rainforests that carry leaves for food.
“Maybe I’ll get the book,” Coller said.
“The Ants,” a book H”lldobler co-authored with biologist E.O. Wilson in April 1990, focuses on ants’ biology and social behavior. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1991.
“It was the first time a scientific work had gained such praise and a prize,” said Karen Mesce, University associate professor of entomology.
Before teaching at the University of WÅrzberg, the German-born H”lldobler was a professor of comparative zoology at Harvard University from 1973 until 1990.