Lord of the Ants
Controversial Extension of Darwinian Ideas to Human Society

Lord of the Ants
Controversial Extension of Darwinian Ideas to Human Society

It has been estimated by E.O. Wilson that the total number of individual ants alive in the world at any one time is between one and ten quadrillion (one thousand million million).

According to this estimate, the total biomass of all the ants in the world is approximately equal to the total biomass of the entire human race. 

At age 78, E.O. Wilson is still going through his "little savage" phase of boyhood exploration of the natural world.

In "Lord of the Ants," NOVA profiles this soft-spoken Southerner and Harvard professor, who is an acclaimed advocate for ants, biological diversity, and the controversial extension of Darwinian ideas to human society.

Actor and environmentalist Harrison Ford narrates this engaging portrait of a ceaselessly active scientist and eloquent writer, who has accumulated two Pulitzer Prizes among his many other honors.

Says fellow naturalist David Attenborough: "He will go down as the man who opened the eyes of millions 'round the world to the glories, the values, the importance of—to use his term—biodiversity."

Ants are social insects of the family Formicidae and, along with the related wasps and bees, belong to the order Hymenoptera. Ants evolved from wasp-like ancestors in the mid-Cretaceous period between 110 and 130 million years ago and diversified after the rise of flowering plants.

More than 12,500 out of an estimated total of 22,000 species have been classified. They are easily identified by their elbowed antennae and a distinctive node-like structure that forms a slender waist.

Ants form colonies that range in size from a few dozen predatory individuals living in small natural cavities to highly organised colonies which may occupy large territories and consist of millions of individuals.

These larger colonies consist mostly of sterile wingless females forming castes of "workers", "soldiers", or other specialised groups. Nearly all ant colonies also have some fertile males called "drones" and one or more fertile females called "queens".

The colonies are sometimes described as superorganisms because the ants appear to operate as a unified entity, collectively working together to support the colony.

Ants have colonised almost every landmass on Earth. The only places lacking indigenous ants are Antarctica and a few remote or inhospitable islands. Ants thrive in most ecosystems, and may form 15–25% of the terrestrial animal biomass.

Their success in so many environments has been attributed to their social organisation and their ability to modify habitats, tap resources, and defend themselves.

Their long co-evolution with other species has led to mimetic, commensal, parasitic, and mutualistic relationships. Ant societies have division of labour, communication between individuals, and an ability to solve complex problems. These parallels with human societies have long been an inspiration and subject of study.

Many human cultures make use of ants in cuisine, medication and rituals. Some species are valued in their role as biological pest control agents. However, their ability to exploit resources brings ants into conflict with humans, as they can damage crops and invade buildings. Some species, such as the red imported fire ant, are regarded as invasive species, establishing themselves in areas where they are accidentally introduced.

Ants perform many ecological roles that are beneficial to humans, including the suppression of pest populations and aeration of the soil.

The use of weaver ants in citrus cultivation in southern China is considered one of the oldest known applications of biological control.

On the other hand, ants can become nuisances when they invade buildings, or cause economic losses. In some parts of the world (mainly Africa and South America), large ants, especially army ants, are used as surgical sutures. The wound is pressed together and ants are applied along it.

The ant seizes the edges of the wound in its mandibles and locks in place. The body is then cut off and the head and mandibles remain in place to close the wound. Some ants of the family Ponerinae have toxic venom and are of medical importance. In South Africa, ants are used to help harvest rooibos, which are small seeds used to make a herbal tea.

The plant disperses its seeds widely, making manual collection difficult. Black ants collect and store these and other seeds in their nest, where humans can gather them en masse. Up to half a pound (200 g) of seeds can be collected from one ant-heap.

Although most ants survive attempts by humans to eradicate them, a few are highly endangered. These are mainly island species that have evolved specialized traits and include the critically endangered Sri Lankan relict ant (Aneuretus simoni) and Adetomyrma venatrix of Madagascar.