Ants are a wonderful topic for a popular science book and it is a wonder to me that there aren’t more such books out there. With a wealth of behaviours, clear parallels to human society and well-recognised ecological importance they are ideal subjects and it is easy to reel off how the chapters of such a book would appear. Army ants, leafcutting ants, weaver ants, the slave making ants and the invasive species would all get a mention, and then there are the many vignettes you could weave in along the way – how ants communicate, the queen–worker split, foraging trails, navigation and so on.A book about ants is almost dutybound to cover this ground and so the challenge for the writer is how to do so in a different and engaging way.
Empire of Ants manages to cover what might be familiar ground for many potential readers in a different way by bringing in a personal touch.The authors bring the details of their own field work, and their own experiences researching and working with ants, into the chapters and this added colour works well. The first chapter for example begins with “Bureaucracy is the bane of researchers everywhere” – a statement with which many of us will agree, but a good start to a chapter that could have begun so much more prosaically.
Empire of Ants covers all the ground you would expect from a book on ants, and brings in all the added extras you could want. From communication to ants that blow themselves up, there is always enough “action”to keep the text moving along. I particularly enjoyed the chapter ‘The Path to World Domination’, which covered the various species of ant that have established as invasive species and, in many cases, serious pests around the world. There is potential here for a stand-alone book perhaps, or one that includes other problematic insects straying from their natural range.
By including their own experiences and journeys here I was concerned before I had read it that Empire of Ants might be too similar in tone and thinking to the Journey to the Ants by Burt Hölldobler and Ed Wilson. I need not have worried. Journey to the Ants is an excellent read but it is a different kind of book, more formal in terms of personal insight and more focussed on a narrative exploration of ant research. Empire of Ants has a lighter touch, and the personal insights and commentaries are used to leaven the text and move things along. It is a touch that works very well, and gives some interesting and at times amusing insights into the trials and tribulations that come from being an entomologist. A good read, and an approach that many of us could learn from in terms of telling “our” stories as well as those of our subjects.