This seems to be insect month on Ecotopia.  Last week we talked with Rocky Pisto and Lee Edwards who told us something about bees and their nature.  Tonight our topic is ants, and our opening theme was “Ants Marching” by the Dave Matthews Band, from Under the Table and Dreaming.  Our guest will be Dr. Mark Moffett, globetrotting ant specialist, who has been described as “the Indiana Jones of entymology,” and he’ll talk to us about his new book, Adventures Among Ants: A Global Safari with a Cast of Trillions.

Some Factoids About Ant

To give you a little background before we talk to our guest, Mark Moffett, we want to share a few Facts About Ants with you, these compiled by Rachna Gupta on the buzzle dot com website.

  • Ants are social insects and they are unable to live on their own and need to live in an organized community or colony. […]
  • Ants belong to the order “Hymenoptera,” and are […] closely related to species wasps. It is believed that ants first appeared during the Cretaceous period and that they had evolved from the wasps that had come out during the Jurassic period. Scientists have also estimated that ants have been living on the earth for more than a 100 million years.
  • Over 10000 known species of ants exist in the world
  • The average life span of an ant is 45 to 60 days.
  • The ant has very strong legs which help it to run very quickly.
  • Ants appear in shades of green, red, brown, yellow, blue or purple.
  • An ant is able to lift about 20 times its own body weight.
  • Adult ants are unable to swallow solid food. They depend on the juice they are able to squeeze out from pieces of food.
  • An ant uses its antenna for touch as well as smell.
  • Ants normally range from 2 to 7 mm in length. The carpenter ant is an exception to the rule, as it can stretch to 2 cm, or even an inch.
  • There is at least one queen in each ant colony.
  • An ant has two stomachs: in one stomach it stores food for itself and in the other it stores food that is to be shared with other ants.
  • Some ants are able to sleep seven hours a day.
  • Ants are mostly omnivorous, that is, they eat other insects, seeds, oils and bread.
  • Queen ants are provided with wings at birth, they lose these wings after they fly off to start new colonies.
  • Black ants and Wood ants do not have a sting, instead they are able to squirt a spray of formic acid. 
  • Worker ants are given the responsibility of taking the rubbish from the nest and putting it into the rubbish dump.
  • Around 700,000 members can be found in the colony of the Army ants
  • Some queen ants can live for many years and have millions of babies!
  • Ants don’t have ears. Ants “hear” by feeling vibrations in the ground through their feet.
  • Ants don’t have lungs. Oxygen enters through tiny holes all over the body and carbon dioxide leaves through the same holes.
  • When the queen of the colony dies, the colony can only survive a few months. Queens are rarely replaced and the workers are not able to reproduce

Our Conversation with Mark Moffett

Our guest is Dr. Mark Moffett author of a new book from the University of California Press, Adventures Among Ants: A Global Safari with a Cast of Trillions.  The book is about his trips around the globe studying ant behavior. He is a Research Associate at the Smithsonian, and is a photographer as well as a naturalist. 

  • You’ve been interested in ants you were a kid. Please tell us how you first became fascinated by critters in general and ants in particular.
  • In your undergraduate days, you also encountered Professor E. O. Wilson, the evolutionary biologist, who began his career by learning everything he could about ants.  How did your work with E. O. Wilson launch you on your safari?
  • We’d love to have you tell some of your stories about ant encounters and, more important, what you learned from them.

[We’re especially interested in the Leafcutter ant, which we encountered recently in a trip to Costa Rica. Perhaps we could focus on some of traits of the Leafcutter:
as farmers
as vegetarians
as fungus growers
as an organized society]

  • How does ant science work? How much observing do you have to do before you come up with a theory or hypothesis?  Please describe a few of your “experiments,” like painting ants pink and green, which seem far removed from the laboratory.
  • We have just a bunch of questions about ants:
    How do they know to show up at a picnic?
    How fast can they move?
    How strong are they?
    Can they swim?
    Can they kill a baby or an antelope?
    How smart are they?  Is their behavior “intelligent”? How do they learn their assigned roles and basic skills in the colony?  [Tell us why you disagree with Lewis Thomas, who says that ants cannot be said to have a “mind,” much less a “thought”.]  Do ants have recognizable “personalities” or individual behavior traits?
  • In your book, you warn against anthropomorphizing ants, attributing human traits to them, but you also talk about analogies and similarities between ant and human behavior, especially in colonies or societies.
  •  Please tell us a little about any similarities that you see as significant or interesting, such as:
    –the “altruism” of ants
    –“Among animals, all-out war against their fellows occurs only among the largest societies of humans and ants.” (123)
    –ant slavery

[Could we talk about the Amazon ants of Sagehen Creek—since that is geographically close to our listening area?
You have some doubts about the applicability of the term “slave”–interesting that Darwin used it, too.
Karl Marx: “a whole population whose efforts are misdirected to benefit an oppressor” (154)
Theories about how ant slavery evolved.]

  • In closing your book you talk about ways of viewing ants: as individuals, as colonies, as an organism, as mind.  Please explain, especially the last one.
  • What’s your current/next project?

We’ve been talking with Mark Moffett, author of Adventures Among Ants, published by the University of California Press.   You can learn more about the book at, and you can see images from Mark’s Smithsonian exhibit of photographs of ants at


Steve: I just can’t let the program end without telling you about one of my all time favorite science fiction movies.  It’s called “Them!” and it was  released in 1954.  The film opens with a police sergeant, played by  James Whitmore, finding a traumatized little girl wandering through the desert. Her family has been mysteriously killed and their home destroyed.  A somewhat dotty British scientist, played by by Edmund Gwinn (and accompanied by his knockout biologist daughter, Joan Weldon), sifts through clues and thinks he has figured out what is going on.  He has the traumatized little girl sniff a vial of formic acid, at which point, her eyes widen and she screams “Them!.” 

Formic acid is what makes ant bites sting and the biological family name of ants is “formicidiae.”  So the scientist figures out that the destruction has been caused by ants that were irradiated by atomic testing and have grown to the size of bulldozers.

The chase is on and ends up in the sewers of Los Angeles with James Whitmore and and FBI agent played by Gunsmoke’s James Arness find the ant next and kills off the queen ant, thus saving humankind.  A dandy film, and it teaches a little bit about ants.  It also received an Academy Award nomination for best special effects for the giant ants.

Playlist for Ecotopia #90–Adventures with Ants

1.  Ants Marching        4:31        Dave Matthews Band       
        Under the Table and Dreaming                       
2.  Royal Garden Blues        1:54        Don Byron       
        Bug Music       
3.  There Ain’t No Bugs On Me        4:50        David Grisman & Jerry Garcia       
        Not For Kids Only                       
4.  The Ants Go Marching One By One        3:23        Wonder Kids       
        Clifford’s the Big Red Dog’s Sing ‘n’ Learn Songs               
5.  Charles Prelude        2:49        Don Byron       
        Bug Music                               
6.  Weave Me the Sunshine        4:28        Peter, Paul And Mary       
        The Very Best of Peter, Paul and Mary