Bert Hölldobler and Ants: Nature’s Secret Power

Did I see Dr. Bert Hölldobler at the Ants: Nature’s Secret Power film screening Saturday night? Let me give you a hint:

The event was a golden opportunity to meet Dr. Hölldobler because the crowd was small (Arizona State University was having a lot of competing activities for Night of the Open Door.)

He started the evening with a brief overview of how the movie came about. It all started when director and cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler had the idea for a movie about ants and contacted Dr. Hölldobler. It was about the same time he was retiring from the University of Würzburg, so he wasn’t sure about the project. Once he had seen a copy of Thaler’s Bees – Tales From the Hive, however, he said he realized the idea had potential. (By the way, Dr. Hölldobler said that Tales from the Hive is the best movie about honey bees he has ever seen).

The final product of their collaboration is the award-winning documentary, Ants: Nature’s Secret Power. It is a complex story that offers both glimpses into the “alien” world of ants for the layperson and peeks into the intriguing experimental techniques used in a high-powered ant research facility for the myrmecologist.

The visuals are outstanding for the most part, as you would expect from an experienced director. Dr. Hölldobler said he was particularly impressed that Thaler had the patience to wait for the ants to do what he wanted them to. He didn’t rush shots. After the movie was shown, Dr. Hölldobler answered questions. His discussion of the part of the movie about the ants tending mealybugs was particularly intriguing. If you have seen the movie (or watch it below), you might remember the dark-colored Dolichodorus cuspidatus (with the golden hairs on their gaster) that were moving around Malaicoccus mealybugs like humans tend to domesticated cattle. He said Ulrich Maschwitz found that D. cuspidatus not only move around the mealybugs to find the best resources for them, but also cart their own colonies along, too. The ants do not build permanent nests, but are essentially nomadic, following their mealybug herds (See Journey to the Ants: A Story of Scientific Exploration by Bert Hölldobler, Edward O. Wilson pp. 149-150 for more information).

He also talked about the scene of the excavation of the leafcutter ants’ nest, which reveals an extraordinary and massive underground structure. He said some of the trails underground extend 90 m or more from the nest. He also mentioned the conflicts that occur in that part of Argentina because the leafcutter ants and agriculture are at odds.

Listening to the passion in his voice, you can tell that Bert Hölldobler is still as excited about ants as he was when he started studying them as a young boy. It was definitely an informative and enjoyable evening. Have you seen Ants:  Nature’s Secret Power? If not, I was able to find it on YouTube. Not the same as the big screen, but it is still pretty awesome, don’t you think?



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2 Replies to “Bert Hölldobler and Ants: Nature’s Secret Power”

  1. Bert introduced this film a few years ago at the University of Missouri, and was equally enthused about the topic, and gracious about answering questions. This is a magnificent film, but having seen it a few times, I come away each time feeling a little bit more, that an uncomfortable amount of the footage in it shows the ants detached from their natural setting.

    By the way, there is also some nice footage of Dolichoderus cuspidatus and its bugs (and many other ants doing their thing) in an old episode of NOVA narrated by E.O.Wilson: I like to recommend this latter as a starter film on ant biology for biology/ecology students, and have shown it to several years’ worth of sutdents, by whom it is always well recieved.

  2. I know what you mean about the ants being in artificial conditions, but that is the part that reveals how his group was studying ants. I actually found it interesting what was left out, such as the fact that the leafcutters were growing fungus gardens wasn’t mentioned until nearly the end, and then only briefly. To me, that is what makes them so special.

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