The Fire Ants – Book Review

Last month some of you indicated that you would be interested in discussing The Fire Ants by Walter Tschinkel. Take a look at the review and if it would be something you’d like to participate in, be sure to leave a comment with your answers to the questions at the bottom of this post. And now for the book review:

The Fire Ants by Walter Tschinkel is the kind of book that blasts through stereotypes. You would think a book with over 700 pages about a single topic, and fire ants at that, would be pretty dreadful reading. Surprise! The Fire Ants has all the elements of a great literary work. It makes you laugh, it makes you cry. Walter Tschinkel turns out to be a scientist with a talent for writing far more than just straight research papers. As E.O. Wilson says in the Foreword, “He has delivered a masterpiece.”

Dr. Tschinkel starts with a prelude essay about how others react when he reveals he studies fire ants for a living. He concludes, “we all do funny things for a living.” The essay sets the tone for the others that follow. He then jumps right to the heart of the matter. “I love fire ants,” he says at the start of the first chapter. It is that passion which makes this book the important and enjoyable read it is.

To make his quick overview of fire ant biology in the first chapter more concrete, Tschinkel takes the reader on a mental field trip to a fire ant research site, shoveling up facts with clumps of imaginary ants. He then delves into the history of the introduction and spread of Solenopsis richteri and then Solenopsis invicta fire ants throughout the southern United States. It is a sad history that shows what can happen when an eradication program is launched without a glimmer of understanding of the target organisms.

In Section II, Tschinkel discusses first the basic needs of a fire ant colony and then the life cycle of a monogyne colony (an ant colony with a single queen laying all the eggs). As an aside, Walter Tschinkel is probably best known by the public for his studies of ant nest structure. He has filled underground ant nests of different species with materials such as dental plaster, allowed the materials to harden, and then dug out the resulting form. In this section he writes an essay about transforming the empty spaces in the ants’ nest into something concrete. His ideas may be difficult to grasp for some, but even if you have no knowledge of ant biology, the shapes are intriguing things of beauty. (Take a look at Walter’s Ant Castles.)

In another essay called “Mundane Methods,” Tschinkel writes about the less-than-glamorous techniques scientists invent to get the job done. Many parts of this essay, particularly the part about the miracle ant containment compound Fluon, are just plain laugh-out-loud hilarious. With over 35 years of fire ant research to draw from, he has more than a few tricks for handling fire ants.

In Section III, Tschinkel shares the basics of fire ant family life, such as how fire ants recognize their nestmates, how jobs are allocated, and how food is shared. He also delves into the part of the fire ant that most people are most acutely aware of, the sting of the fire ant, as well as the chemical properties of its venom and its uses. He concludes fire ant venom is a nasty cocktail but other ants and wasps have much worse stings when it comes to pain. A small proportion of the human population is allergic to fire ants stings, however, and for those individuals even a single sting can potentially be fatal without immediate medical care.

Moving on, the author devotes several chapters in Section IV to the discovery of polygyny in fire ants, and goes into fascinating detail how fire ants perform brood raids between competing incipient colonies until one colony ends up with all the brood and is the winner. These detailed studies are the type that can only emerge after years of observations, experiments and a profound understanding of the organism.

The final section is a a wrap-up of population studies and ecology, including how Solenopsis invicta colonies interact with their environment, with other ant species, with other arthropods, and with vertebrates. The section on decomposer communities, starting on page 602, is a review of some of the pastureland research. Tschinkel writes, “Because dung and the community of insects exploiting it age rather quickly, the researchers hung around pastures to watch the cows defecate (need a job?)” The writing deteriorates from there (pun intended). But what would you expect from a man whose program is called the “Fire Ant Research Team”?

In The Fire Ants, Walter Tschinkel delivers an insightful and educational overview of the current status of scientific research on one species of ant. That he can keep the reader interested, and inject some well-placed levity, shows he has much to teach us about the communication of scientific ideas as well.

Publisher: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (April 15, 2006)
ISBN-10: 0674022076
ISBN-13: 978-0674022072

If you think you’d like to participate in a reading and discussion of this book, please leave a comment with your answers to the following:

Do you have access to a copy of The Fire Ants to read?

Because the book is so long, I assume we would read about 3-4 chapters per week at most. Does that seem reasonable?

As for the discussion format,

  1. Do you want me to put together summaries of and questions for that week’s chapter(s) in a blog post and you can respond in the comments? (I assuming one discussion post per week).
  2. Would everyone like to blog their own summaries of that week’s chapters and then send the URL’s here for a “link carnival?”
  3. Or we could start a Yahoo group?

I’m sure we won’t be able to accommodate everyone’s preferences, but I would like to make this as enjoyable as possible. Please let me know if you have any suggestions.

Final note:  I get about a gazillion spam messages per day on this particular blog. If your comments go to spam, I may not find them. Please try again or e-mail me if your comments don’t appear in a day.