For many people, Bert Holldobler and Edward O. Wilson’s magnum opus The Ants is the go-to source for a book on ants. It’s the Bible for ant enthusiasts, having lured countless people into the world of ants (myself included), and it remains a mainstay reference book for seasoned entomologists and researchers. I confess myself to still feeling the frenzied buzz of a child-in-a-sweet-shop when I dust off my own well-thumbed copy and take a peek inside.
I felt the same excitement (and some nostalgia) on opening Richard Jones’s new book Ants. Holldobler and Wilson’s tome is a hard act to follow: I couldn’t stop myself from asking: “Do we really need another magnum opus on ants?”
It turns out we do!
One of my personal frustrations with many insect books is that they typically champion the more sensational, exotic species. Granted, it’s hard not to be awe-struck by the fungus-farming neotropical leaf-cutting ants, or the intricate needlework of Australia’s weaver ants. But, for those who (like me) grew up amongst the rather modest biota of (not so) Great Britain, it’s a joy to see a book that celebrates the biodiversity of ants found on our doorstep, and moreover one that champions them within ecological, behavioural and evolutionary contexts. It’s a relief to see a book on British and Irish ants that doesn’t limit itself to an identification guide with a token gesture of natural history context thrown in. Jones’s book proves that although British ants may be more demur and discreet than their exotic counterparts, they really are quite marvellous products of evolution.
Ants is the eleventh volume in the relatively new series ‘British Wildlife’. It is a weighty tome, packed with information on the ecology, diversity, ecology and importance of these insects. I was impressed with both its breadth and depth. The book is best described as a one-stop shop for anyone thirsting for a holistic knowledge of ants. Whether it’s a convincing pitch on the important role that ants play in the environment, a crash course in their extraordinary social lives, a review of our own relationships with ants and how they’ve infiltrated history, art and literature, or a comprehensive identification key, this book has something for everyone. You can choose to settle in for a multi-course feast of all-things-ant, or opt for a quick snack of ant identification, or a naughty nibble of ant life-history. Richard Jones has spread his net wide, and as a result his book is likely to capture the interests of students, young entomologists, seasoned naturalists, academics and established entomologists alike.
You will come away from this book empowered with a comprehensive knowledge of British ants: there’s a very readable chapter that walks you through the ants of Britain and Ireland and, for the super-keen, you’ll find a very excellent up-to-date key to the 50-odd species of ants you’re likely to find there. There’s a chapter on how to study ants — from your common back garden Lasius niger to more elusive species, some intimate and amusing details about how (not) to use a pooter, some useful insider-information on how to negotiate the UK’s ant recording scheme and even a recipe for gourmet ant food (to feed ants, not humans).
But this is no navel-gazing Brit-ant-fest feast. For those residing beyond our green and pleasant ant lands, there is much appeal and interest — with comprehensive chapters on ant evolution, life cycles, sociality, their interactions with other species and of course their place in our own lives. I enjoyed recapping on ant biology, which Jones skilfully litters with up-to-date citations from a scientific literature drawn across a broad international community of ant scientists. The Jones-icing on the ant-biology cake for me, however, was how he weaves tasty historical nuggets into his accounts of ant ecology, social lives and evolution — I loved the sketch of ‘Ants at play’ from L.O. Howard’s 1904 The Insects Book and the depiction of a de-abdomened Formica ant still fighting her corner in ‘Ants at war’, from L.M. Budgen’s 1850 Episodes of Insect Life. Jones’s appreciation of the lost texts from the past is fresh and important — something we often miss in natural history books today.
What did I like best about this book? I love the fact it’s not just a dry insect identification or natural history book. It’s full of the passion, depth and excitement that only a genuine ant expert and enthusiast could convey. You get the distinct feeling that Jones has poured a lot of his life and a good dollop of soul into this book. Like ants teeming from a nest poked by a small child, Jones’s enthusiasm for ants bubbles out of every page. His knowledge of their biology and taxonomy is seemingly bottomless. His understanding of their social lives with each other, with the ecosystems they help maintain, and their most difficult and peculiar partners — us — is profound. And he weaves his text with a cheery tone that will surely bring a smile to even the most resolute myrmecophobe. For instance, what better way to describe the characteristic constricted gaster of a ponerine than how it makes them look “as if they’ve done their belt up too tight”!
If I were pushed to find some criticism it would be the cover, which is a rather unimaginative mass of ants crawling across the page. In keeping with the series, it is hand drawn and, in that respect, quite pleasant (if you like ants). But it does not do justice to the astonishing diversity of ants that Jones so ably brings to life in his book. Twinned with the signature logo of the series which is featured prominently on the front, I worry that the cover may be limiting the readership. You’re not going to pick this book up in a bookshop unless you’re already curious about ants. I think this is a shame, as this book has the potential to lure the uninitiated into the marvellous lives of ants (and those on their doorstep at that). No fault of the author of course, but I hope that any 2nd edition will be marketed in a more broad-reaching way.
In sum, this is a tome to own and behold; one that is likely to be gathering thumb-marks and smiles rather than dust on bookshelves across the country and beyond.