December 11, 2009
Pulitzer-Prize winner and Arizona State University professor Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson’s newest collaborative publication “The Superorganism: The beauty, elegance and strangeness of insect societies” has been chosen as one of the standout books of 2009 by the Financial Times.
Written in fine detail for a broad readership, the book chronicles the “remarkable growth of knowledge concerning the social insects during the past two decades and provides a deep look in to a part of the living world hitherto glimpsed by only a very few.”
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Featured not only by the Financial Times, but also chosen as the New York Times Notable Book of the Year (2008) and Library Journals Top Sci-Tech Books (2008), the book's power resides in our long-standing fascination and relationship (and yes, dependence) on social insects, in combination with the skill and passion of its authors.
It is easy to overlook ants, bees and termites, unless they complicate our lives with invasions or stings. However, social insects are among the most ecologically important species in almost all land ecosystems, Hölldobler said. Making up only 2-3 percent of all animal species, they comprise nearly 80 percent of the entire insect biomass and 35 percent of the entire animal biomass (excluding humans). Arizona, home to Hölldobler and ASU’s School of Life Sciences’ Social Insect Research Group, holds the richest ant fauna in the United States. Ants farm, go to war and play key roles in the environment – turning over soils, distributing seeds, and hunting plant-eating insects; they and other social insects also play growing roles in studies of complex adaptive systems, swarm theory, social complexity, aging and biomedical discovery. “The Superorganism” details just one of the many intriguing studies of Hölldobler with leaf-cutting ants which revealed ants’ use of vibrations to slice through leaves; work which inspired engineers from the Technical University in Ilmenau, Germany, to develop vibrational micro-surgery tools.
Superorganisms, those self-organized entities that emerge from countless interactions of hundreds, thousands or millions of individuals tightly knit by altruistic cooperation, complex communication and division of labor, find their highest expression in the insects, according to Hölldobler. And while the concept of the collective – the superorganism – is not new and indeed has been popularized in novels, movies and television, it is gaining new impetus and understanding.
For example, studies of ant and bee collectives have translated into ways of managing our own human societies. Savvy businesses translate findings from insect studies into corporate savings. Air Liquide uses ant-based delivery protocols to save more than 6 million dollars a year. Companies in Italy and Switzerland, according to a piece in National Geographic (2007) use: “fleets of trucks carrying milk and dairy products, heating oil, and groceries all use ant-foraging rules to find the best routes for deliveries. In England and France, telephone companies have made calls go through faster on their networks by programming messages to deposit virtual pheromones at switching stations, just as ants leave signals for other ants to show them the best trails. In the U.S., Southwest Airlines has tested an ant-based model to improve service at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix."
And we haven’t even started to talk about our dependence on, study of and investment in bees. The USDA estimates that there are up to 212,000 hobbyist bee keepers and 1,600 commercial operations in the United States, with the honey crop valued at $153 million in 2007. Bees are critical pollinators. According to the National Honey Board, the first colony rented out to help pollinate crops was in 1909. Now more than 2.5 million colonies are rented for pollination, producing agricultural crops that topped $5.7 billion in the U.S. The California almond crop, produced from 420,000 acres of trees, is entirely dependent on honey bee pollination and involves up to 1 million bees.
What else do ants, bees and wasps hold in secret? Hölldobler said that while more than 13,000 species have been discovered; there are thousands more yet to be found. “The Superorganism” is one glowing chapter in the-book-yet-to-be-written and brings us closer to the mystery, diversity and invention of our insect neighbors.
“The nature of our planet without ants, bees or termites would look very different," he said. "The tremendous ecological success of these social insects is certainly due to their elaborate systems of division of labor and complex social organizations. They are fantastic model systems for the study social complexity and the evolution of social life on Earth.”
Hölldobler came to ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in 2004. He is a member of several national and international academies, among them the German National Academy of Sciences (Leopoldina), the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the National Academy of Sciences (USA). He is also the recipient of numerous honors, including the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize of the German Science Foundation, one of the highest science prizes in Europe, and the National Merit Medal of Germany. He has authored three books with Wilson, including “The Ants,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 1991.