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Ants and Their Ways (S362: 1883)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A review of the Rev. W. Farren White's Ants and Their Ways printed in the Nature issue of 26 July 1883. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S362.htm

    [[p. 293]] Ant literature is now so extensive and the subject is so popular, that it was an excellent idea to give in a handy volume a résumé of all that is known of the economy and life-history of these interesting insects. The writer is well fitted for the work, having made ants his special study for more than twenty years, during which time he has observed in their native haunts nearly every species of British ant, and has been able to confirm some of the most curious facts of their social economy. Although full of detailed and interesting information, and containing the results of the most recent observations of Sir John Lubbock, Dr. McCook, Forel, and other writers, the book is written in a lively and gossiping style well fitted to attract the young and persons who are not usually readers of scientific works; but many will think that liveliness of style is carried too far when we find such sensational headings as "Political Demonstration in the Ant-world," "Funeral Rites," "The Ants at their Toilet," &c., &c.

    Coming however to the original observations of the writer, we find him disputing the statement of Sir John Lubbock, that ants dislike light. He says:--

    "That they prefer working underground is certainly true, and that they construct their chambers and passages out of sight is clearly established, and that they will not work against the sides of the bell-glass if exposed to the light is undoubted fact. But it is not, I believe, because they dislike the light, but because, for sanitary, educational, and protective reasons, it is necessary that their many chambers should be arranged at certain depths below the surface, and therefore at varying distances from the light of day."

    He then goes on to record a series of experiments showing that ants are attracted to the sunlight and bring their young beneath its influence for the sake of the [[p. 294]] warmth which accompanies it, and that in the same way they are attracted by the light of a candle placed close to the sides of the formicarium; the glass being warmed and becoming a source of radiant heat. The elaborate experiments of Sir John Lubbock, showing that ants preferred the red end of the spectrum and avoided the violet end, are all explained by their preference for the greater warmth accompanying the red rays, though he also thinks they dislike the effect of the chemical rays. His general conclusion is, that there is no evidence that they distinguish colour or prefer one colour to another, but that they always prefer warmth, and dislike the action of the chemical rays of light, while to light itself they have no objection whatever.

    Mr. White reproduces from the Proceedings of the Linnean Society for 1861 a remarkable account of some Australian ants burying their dead in a methodical manner strongly resembling our funerals, and supports it by some curious observations of his own. In one of his newly procured nests there were many dead ants, which were carried up from below and placed against the glass. Three small card trays containing honey for the ants were placed in the formicarium, but instead of eating the honey the trays were used as cemeteries, and in two days 140 dead ants were placed in one tray and 180 in each of the others. In another case he observed the ants burying the dead in subterranean cemeteries, the bodies being covered with earth and the passage leading to the vault being stopped up.

    A good account is given of the various creatures found in ants' nests, such as the crustacean Platyarthrus Hoffmanseggii, the various species of beetles, some of which are never found elsewhere, and seem to depend on the ants for their subsistence, and the aphides which the ants actually breed for their own use just as we do cattle. Some ants have small colonies of other ants domiciled with them, apparently as guests or lodgers, while others capture the pupæ of distinct species and bring them up to work for them like veritable slaves. This extraordinary habit of slave-making is fully described in two very interesting chapters, and Mr. White is one of the few Englishmen who have been so fortunate as to witness the slave-hunters at their work.

    We cannot better illustrate our author's style and his mode of viewing the subject of ant-economy than by quoting the passage in which he sums up the result of his observations and inquiries:--

    "And now, surely enough has been said, ample evidence has been brought forward, my own personal testimony having been confirmed when necessary by the experience of others, to warrant me in earnestly demanding for my little clients a favourable verdict. When you bear in mind the self-devotion of the queen for the commonwealth; the loyalty of her subjects, their affection towards their youthful charges, preserving as they do a happy medium between undue severity and over-indulgence; their liberal system of education without the aid of privy councils and revised codes; their plan of drainage, most effectual before boards of health and city corporations had ever been heard of; their public works and national enterprises, planned and executed with the most surprising promptitude, uncontrolled by parliamentary committees, orders in council, and circumlocution offices; their social institutions, their provident clubs and savings banks, gathering as they do their meat in the summer--the continental and foreign ants grain and honey, the British ants their aphides for future use; when you bear in mind their perseverance under difficulties, that no poor-house or assessment committee or sanitary authorities are needed, for all live as brethren, all sympathise with each other in trouble and difficulty, and share everything in common as members of the same happy family, 'he that gathers much having nothing over, and he that gathers little having no lack;' when you remember their habits of early rising, of cleanliness, of moderation, of economy, of temperance, their love of fresh air, their skill and industry in their many trades, the magnificent scale on which they construct their houses; their language, which, though more difficult to acquire than Chinese, yet is to them so intelligible that there are no misunderstandings, all speaking it fluently, and by means of its mysterious agency communicating their ideas to each other; when you recall how they carry out concerted plans thoroughly, noiselessly, uninterruptedly, not resting till their work be finished, animated by one spirit, pursuing thus the end, fulfilling thus the law of their brief existence--you must allow that surely this 'little people' are 'exceeding wise.'"

    Though somewhat anthropomorphic and highly coloured, this passage brings before us in a striking manner the many marvellous characteristics of the habits and instincts of ants, and also serves to show the thorough and enthusiastic study which the writer has bestowed upon them.

    The book is well illustrated with numerous woodcuts from original drawings; and in an appendix is given a complete list of British ants with careful descriptions of all the species, forty-one in number. It will therefore be of great assistance to any entomologist wishing to commence the study of our native ants; while as an interesting volume for the general reader, or as a gift-book for children with a taste for natural history, it may be safely recommended as among the very best of its kind.

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