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He never grew out of his ‘bug phase’

Staff Reporter
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A book on ants brought Bert Hölldobler and his co-author no less than the Pulitzer

Bert Hölldobler
Bert Hölldobler

“About five millions years ago, if aliens had landed on our planet and seen these societies, they would have decided they (the ants) were the pinnacle of evolution,” begins German behavioural scientist, chemist and Pulitzer Prize winner Bert Hölldobler while talking about a particular society of leaf cutter ants.

These societies of ants are farmers and cultivators of large farms of fungi that are grown on leaf beds which they cut and carry back to their nests. These gardens are the lifeline of the community and the leaf cutter ants have learnt to recognise various distress signals sent out by the fungus.

These fascinating ants are one of the various species explored by Prof. Hölldobler in his book, The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies , which he has co-authored with Edward O. Wilson, another reputed behavioural scientist. Superorganism is when the social unit of a species, such as the ants or honey bees, work in synchrony and such efficiency that the unit itself could be considered an organism and subject to evolutionary forces as opposed to the individuals. Prof. Hölldobler and Prof. Edward O. Wilson have co-authored several books, including The Ants , which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1991. “We never expected it. The book won other prizes too — The Hawkings Prize that is given to the best scholarly book of the year written in English. At least that was something you could hope for since we put a lot of work into it, but this we didn’t even dream of. “We grew up near forests: I in the south of Germany in Bavaria and Edward in the south of the United States. Both of us were very interested in bugs as boys. We keep saying, everyone goes through a bug phase when they are young: we never got out of it.” Back to his pet topic, he says ant societies are diverse and we have a lot to learn from them. “It is one where each part of the system has equal value. If any strata of the ant society are removed, the society would fall apart.”

In his documentary, Ants: Nature’s Secret Power , which won the 2005 Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival’s Special Jury Prize, Prof. Hölldobler leads the viewer through his research.

In Karnataka

“In fact, in 1992, we went to Jog Falls in Karnataka. We first observed the ants. And then got them in our containers and established a colony in the lab. There are chemical signatures on the surface, we collect them with little hairs and find out what these chemicals are. We then ‘talk’ to the ants with these chemicals. The nicest experience I have even now, like a little boy, is when the ants respond. When the ants follow that chemical, for me it is still a delight. In a little way you have communicated with them.”


  • ‘Ant societies are diverse and we have a lot to learn from them’

  • ‘If any strata of the ant society are removed, the society would fall apart’


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