Tribute to Ant Specialist E. O. Wilson

According to his obituary in The New York Times, Dr. E.O. Wilson passed away on Sunday, December 26, 2021. He will be greatly missed by myrmecologists around the world.

Anyone who is interested in ants has probably read at least one of Wilson’s books, including the groundbreaking tome The Ants written with Bert Hölldobler. The Ants won them a Pulitzer Prize in 1991.

(Cover images and titles are Amazon affiliate links.)

On a more personal note, my graduate advisor at Cornell University, Dr. William L. Brown, Jr. — Bill — was a close friend and colleague of Dr. Wilson’s. He told many stories about their adventures together while traveling the world in search of ants. Erich Hoyt chronicled some of their experiences in his 1996 book, The Earth Dwellers:  Adventures in the Land of Ants.

While I was at Cornell during the 1980s, Bill was helping E. O. Wilson with his work on bigheaded ants, the genus Pheidole. It is a large and complex group. According to Hoyt’s book on page 61, when Brown asked him when they would finish, Wilson said:

“We’ll probably go out on Pheidole.”


Public domain image by Alex Wild.

Bill passed away in 1997, several years before Pheidole in the New World: A Dominant, Hyperdiverse Ant Genus was finally published in 2003 by Harvard University Press. On the other hand, Ed Wilson had many, many more publications to go.


If you knew him, my condolences. If you did not and want to find out more about this man who was passionate about ants, you can read one of E. O. Wilson’s many books or the 2021 biography, Scientist: E. O. Wilson: A Life in Nature by Richard Rhodes.

Gall Wasps Galore

The American Museum of Natural History has a new video series called Shelf Life, bringing the museum’s massive collections to life. Of interest to those who study hymenoptera is recent episode featuring Kinsey’s Wasps.

The “Kinsey” referred to in the title is Alfred Kinsey, of course, who is best known for his work on human sexuality.


Perhaps less known is that fact that Kinsey started out his career as an entomologist who studied gall wasps. Gall wasps are tiny insects that lay their eggs in plant tissues. The plant responds to the feeding of the larvae by growing abnormal structures called galls. The red, round galls in the photograph above are being tended by ants.

Kinsey collected a massive number of gall wasps during his tenure as an entomologist, some 7.5 million specimens according to the video. Incredible!

Makes you wonder about how that experience of collecting such a vast amount of data influenced his later research.

What do you think?

A Tribute to Anna Botsford Comstock for International Women’s Day

Today, March 8, 2015, is International Women’s Day. March is also Women’s History Month. It seemed like a perfect day to pay tribute to Anna Botsford Comstock.


(Photograph from Library of Congress archives)

Anna Botsford Comstock was a literal pioneer, born in a log cabin in western New York State on September 1, 1854. She was also a pioneer in many other ways. She was one of the first female students at Cornell University, starting in November of 1874. She was one of the first four women to be inducted by Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society founded in 1886. Later she became the first woman Professor at Cornell University, in Nature Studies.

Anna had many talents. She was an artist. Early in her career she learned wood engraving and she illustrated many of her husband’s entomology textbooks. Her work was exhibited at the 1893 Exposition of U.S. Women Painters and is still cited by scientific illustrators today. She also was interested in literature and poetry, and wrote a novel that sold well. In addition to writing, and scientific illustration, she was an editor, a teacher and as well as arguably, a scientist. Her thesis for her Bachelor of Science degree was on “The Fine Anatomy of the Interior of the Larvae of Corydalus cornutus.” She eventually became part of the Nature Study Movement, and wrote and taught about natural history.

Anna Botsford Comstock’s most monumental book, Handbook of Nature Study, was self-published in 1911 because no publisher was interested in a 938-page book on nature study. Ironically, the book no one would publish is still in press and still popular. It has gone through at least 24 editions and has been translated into 8 languages. Anna’s work led her to be called “the mother of the nature study movement” and to be inducted into the National Wildlife Federations’ Conservation Hall of Fame.

Anna Botsford Comstock  is a perfect fit for this year’s theme for International Women’s Day:  Make It Happen!


What does Anna Botsford Comstock have to say about ants in Handbook of Nature Study?

 “Very many performances on the part of the ant seem to us without reason; undoubtedly many of out performances seem likewise to her. But the more understandingly we study her and her ways, the more we are inclined to believe that she knows what she is about; I’m sure that none of us can sit down by an ant-nest and watch its citizens come and go, without discovering things to make us marvel. “


Personal Tribute

Why did I choose to honor Anna Botsford Comstock ? Actually it is a personal story. I was introduced to Anna while I was a graduate student at Cornell University. The entomology building that I worked in was named after her and her husband, entomology professor John Henry Comstock. The fact her name was included on the building intrigued me and I wanted to find out more about her. Not many college campus buildings in that area are named after women. I later found out that a dorm at Hobart and William Smith Colleges is also named after her.

As I discovered more and more about Anna Botsford Comstock, I began to realize what a special person she was. She had a positive impact on many of the people who met her, and also on the generations that followed. For example, in her biography of Rachel Carson, author Linda Lear reveals Rachel Carson’s mother read and was inspired by Anna Comstock’s nature writings. In turn, she passed her interest in nature to her daughter Rachel, who went on to write the highly influential book, Silent Spring.


Two Tributes to E.O. Wilson

In an interesting set of coincidences, two tributes to Dr. Edward O. Wilson, ant expert extraordinaire, arrived in my mailbox recently.

The first was a press release from the National Geographic Society. Wilson was honored on June 13, 2013 with a Hubbard Medal “for his lifelong commitment to the planet’s rich diversity through his research and writing” at the Society’s 125th Anniversary Gala. Filmmaker James Cameron and oceanographer Sylvia Earle also received medals. The medal adds to over 100 awards Dr. Wilson has received in his lifetime. Accompanying the press release, was this photograph:


(Photo by Joel Sartore/National Geographic)

On his first trip to Gorongosa (and Africa), scientist and author Edward O. Wilson uses an experienced nose to identify a foam grasshopper. It’s named for the smelly, poisonous foam it emits. … The photograph appears in the June 2013 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Dr. Edward O. Wilson has worn many hats and is known for his studies of island biogeography, sociobiology and biodiversity. Although shown here with a grasshopper, Wilson’s first love is ants and he is recognized in the myrmecology world for his Pulitzer prize-winning book with Bert Holldobler, The Ants, his work on the big-headed ants, Pheidole in the New World: A Dominant, Hyperdiverse Ant Genus, as well as numerous scientific publications.

I remember my graduate advisor, Dr. William (Bill) Brown, Jr. had a lot to do with pushing (read brow beating) Wilson to complete his book on Pheidole. Unfortunately, the book turned out to be very expensive and didn’t sort out the confusing taxonomy of the group as much as some would have liked. Still, it was an undertaking only someone with his perseverance could have accomplished.

The second tribute takes a very different form. Thanks to author Sara van Dyck, I also received a copy of the e-book The Boy Who Loved Ants: Edward O.Wilson, a biography of Wilson’s life for children.


Rightfully, van Dyck concentrates on Dr. Wilson’s childhood and how his interest in the natural world shaped his future status as one of the leaders of the push to preserve the biodiversity of the earth. She also includes suggestions for related activities to do with children, including taking a personal “BioBlitz” walk. See a more complete review of the book at my children’s book blog, Wrapped In Foil.

In any case, it has been a busy month for tributes to Dr. E.O. Wilson.

Do you have a favorite publication either written by or about Dr. Wilson? What is it?


Reading level:  Ages 7 and up
File Size: 321 KB
Print Length: 14 pages
Simultaneous Device Usage: Unlimited
Publisher: Sara van Dyck (January 27, 2012)
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.