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Fork in the Road: Ants rule—in our kitchens and kingdoms beyond

If we turn our attention to the tiniest things in nature, the better off we'll all be
Paying attention to the very small means we’re also paying attention to the very large.

Edward O. Wilson is my hero, and not just because he thought both BioBlitzes and ants were cool.

I like to think of him as “E.O.” for short (the “O” is for “Osborne”), the way he’s usually cited, albeit normally with “Wilson.” I bet he wouldn’t mind were he still alive. (He died in 2021 at the age of 92.)

This amazingly sensitive, shy, unpretentious, persistent, observant, astute scientist—who was born in the American South and was a perfect embodiment of that endearing “Southern gentleman” politesse— was actually an evolutionary biologist and expert on human nature, insects and social systems. He was also the author of dozens of books, going back to 1974; the winner of so many scientific prizes, you can barely count them all; a Harvard professor for ages; and an outspoken, ardent defender of some of the tiniest, commonest and most taken-for- granted lifeforms on Earth, which was all the more remarkable since such things were dismissed as, well, quaint or unnecessary— maybe like “women’s work” in his time.

Did I say he was amazing? E.O.’s entire life was devoted to exploring and protecting all the staggering forms of biodiversity on the planet. So no wonder he was a major advocate of BioBlitzes, like the one Whistler Naturalists held in July for the 17th time. Once again, experts volunteered their time and knowledge in a race against the clock to document as many plant and animal species as possible in 24 hours.

Whistler’s is the longest running BioBlitz in Canada. It will still take a while to tabulate this year’s efforts, but organizers hope 2023 will push Whistler over the top for 5,000 species—impressive, especially since only 435 species were known when local biologist Bob Brett first started tabulating the area’s biodiversity more than two decades ago.

I’ll get back to why all this BioBlitzing is so critical, but first let me gush on about E.O. a bit more.

Edward O. Wilson stood outside of time—and convention. The controversies he sometimes stirred up endeared him to me all the more. I’m guessing he’s probably rolling over in his grave right now, because highly flammable non-native grasses—an invasive species monoculture—were instrumental in Maui’s disastrous blazes.

I shudder to think of all the never- documented, never-understood species destroyed in all the unprecedented wildfires we’re seeing, not just in Maui. And that’s just the start. Our warming oceans, disappearing wetlands, clearcut forests, polluted air— there’s a terrible irony at play here. Just as we humans are finally grasping the wonder of our natural world more and more, we’re simultaneously destroying it more and more.

In 2008, in another case of his prescience, E.O. told this to The New York Times: “Future generations will forgive us our horrible, genocidal wars, because it’ll pass too far in history. They will forgive us all of the earlier generations’ follies and the harm. But they will not forgive us for having so carelessly thrown away a large part of the rest of life on our watch.”

One of his finest books—one of two that earned him a Pulitzer Prize, one he co-authored with his longtime collaborator Bert Hölldobler, is The Ants. At 700-plus pages, it’s intense, and it’s all about one of the smallest things in that larger part of life we’re so careless about.

Ants were a big deal to E.O. from the time he was a boy and was half-blinded in one eye by the spine of a pinfish he was reeling in. It was then he turned his gaze downward.

If you want to saddle up to his ideas in a gentler, more poetic way, try his 2020 masterpiece, Tales From the Ant World, published the year before he died. I just dusted off the copy on my messy desk...

“Ants Rule” is the name of the introduction. It goes from there. “Ants, it is said, are among the little creatures that run the world, perhaps for our benefit, perhaps not,” he writes. E.O. also reckons that if humans hadn’t arisen as an “accidental primate species,” visitors from other star systems (oh yes, he assures us, they will eventually come) would call Earth “planet of the ants.”

Beyond ants, he cautions, more than a million species of insects, spiders, and other arthropods await our full attention. “The more that this part of the biosphere is studied by future experts, the better off will be the world, our selves included.” To wit, Whistler’s BioBlitz.

It’s natural: Paying attention to the very small means we’re also paying attention to the very large—our food-producing lands, our

oceans, our forests, us. To that end, I love E.O.’s answer to the most common question he ever received: What do I do about the ants in my kitchen?

His reply: Watch your step. Be careful of “little lives” and consider becoming an amateur myrmecologist—someone who studies ants. “They carry no disease, and may help eliminate other insects that do carry disease. You are a million times larger than each one. You could hold an entire colony in your cupped hands. You inspire fear in them; they should not in you.”

E.O. then goes on to recommend that we make use of the ants in our kitchens by feeding them and reflecting on what we observe. “Place a few pieces of food the size of a thumbnail on the floor or sink. They’re especially fond of honey, sugar water, chopped nuts, and canned tuna,” he writes.

If you think all this sounds intriguing, the Whistler Public Library has some great Edward O. Wilson books to get you started. Try The Diversity of Life of Earth, still considered to be the best book about biodiversity. Or Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, which won him his other Pulitzer Prize. In it he urges that the only solution to the Sixth Extinction is to set aside half the Earth’s surface in natural bioreserves. Get it? Half-Earth.

Personally, I’d love to see us set aside even more. In the meantime, consider joining the Whistler Naturalists, or sending them a donation. The more money they have, the more experts they can add to next year’s BioBlitz.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who watches the ants—and spiders—in her kitchen.

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