A much-battered package arrived in the mail many weeks ago, and inside, still undamaged, was the striking volume of a new book, Adventures Among Ants by Mark Moffett. I was delighted, because I have always been a big fan of his work, which I discovered through his National Geographic articles. His photographs of ants and insects and the fascinating stories that accompanied them have long since captured my respect. For me he is one of the photographers who raised the quality bar for photomacrography.
Mark Moffett’s book is a treasure for all those interested in the lives of insects and the entomologists that study them. He begins the book with a brief autobiography followed by an introduction to ants and an outline of the social system within an ant colony. Then he moves on to a chapter called “marauder ant – the ultimate omnivore”. These ants are one of the subjects of his postgraduate studies, and Mark begins with his experiences in south India studying the complex society of Pheidologeton diversus, the ant he was later to call the “marauder ant”.
What is clear from the onset is that Mark is not offering us a dry collection of the latest scientific research about ants. Woven through the descriptions of his travels and research are his accounts of the environment he is living and working in and the often humorous experiences he has with the local people and his fellow biologists.
For instance, we can follow Mark as he sets out with the goal of determining the size of a marauder nest in Thailand. He is camping with another biologist in the Tam Dao National Park, where tales of man-eating tigers are circulating. The day begins as they emerge from their open lean-to to discover tiger prints in the dirt nearby. While observing love-calling gibbons, he notices a trail of marauder ants, and he begins to trace the trail through the leaf litter. An hour or more later he finds the nest at the base of a tree. Ecstatic, he falls to his knees, head down and rear up (which he calls the entomologist’s “compromising position”) and begins crawling around in the leaf litter under the tree. Something makes him look up, and there, only two yards away, is a bull elephant. For a brief moment, they examine each other and then the elephant turns away, crashing through the forest. In that instant, Mark knows how ants might feel as he blunders around their nest…
Having discovered the nest, he ignores the painful bites and he begins to dig out and bag the ants. He eventually makes his way back to the vehicle with several kilograms of soil and irate marauders. By evening, back at the village, he convinces a cook in a restaurant to allow him to place the bag in the freezer. The freezing will kill or incapacitate the ants so that he can sift through the debris and count the ants. However, his plan was not so easily achieved. When he returns to the restaurant the next morning to claim his package he is met by an irate cook, who, not knowing of the contents, had removed the bag and placed it on the floor in the kitchen. The ants had revived and they managed to pierce through the bag and escape. Once more, Mark assumes ‘the position’ and rounds up the ants. After an hour’s work under flowing Thai curses, he manages to recapture the escapees and proceed with the count.
The book continues, chapter by chapter, in a similar fashion. There are chapters on the raiders, the African army ants; the Weaver ants of the forest canopy; the ‘Amazon’ slave makers; the constantly gardening leafcutters and, finally, the global invaders – the battling Argentine ants. Each chapter is a blend of Mark’s exploits and anecdotes combined with fascinating scientific information on the lives of ants and the societies they form. For those who are not familiar with myrmecology, Adventures Among Ants is a great introduction to the concept of the ‘Superorganism’, the appearance that these colonies of insects are actually behaving with the complexity of a single organism, with each ant the equivalent of a cell within the body, and the different ant designations – the queen, workers and soldiers behaving like the organs.
However, how much does this book appeal to the photographer? Samples of Mark’s stunning photography are scattered throughout, but he only occasionally provides information on his equipment and technique. He entered photomacrography with the right concepts immediately: he studied how professional photographers used light in the studio and he transferred what he discovered to the use of flash and natural light in the field:
“When I left Boston for Asia in 1981, I had a premonition that I would discover amazing things about the marauder ant — so amazing that my thesis committee might suspect I had concocted stories while smoking an illegal substance with an Indian guru. Knowing I had to come home with indisputable documentation, before I left for Asia I bought a how-to book on photographing supermodels, Cosmopolitan-style. With $230 in equipment that included a used Canon SLR, a macro lens, and three $15 flash attachments that gave me electric shocks, I miniaturized the glamor studio the book described by affixing the flashes to the front of the lens with a pipe clamp. By adjusting the strength of my lights, I adopted the concepts of “fill” and “hair light” to accentuate the gleaming exoskeletons of my miniscule models, defining each limb and chiselling every fibre on film” (pgs 36/37)
He continues to describe the thrill he first experienced when viewing ants through a macro lens, the thrill that most photomacrographers must share:
“In India, trying my equipment for the first time outside, I was stunned to see that through my lens, ants towered. Soon I was stalking them through the viewfinder with all the thrill nineteenth-century hunters must have felt tracking lions.”
Those photographs of the Marauder ants were to launch Mark’s association with National Geographic. His first 1986 article, Marauders of the Jungle Floor, launched a series of articles with National Geographic Magazine, a relationship that continues today.
The book is written at a nonprofessional’s level, but it has extensive notes that include the scientific documentation that supports his narrative. While I appreciate Adventures Among Ants from the viewpoint of an enthusiastic photographer and naturalist, I believe this book will also be of interest to entomologists due to the great story telling and the excellent photography. For those already steeped in ants, Alex Wild’s professional review will provide the details you require to help you decide if you need a copy of this book.
While it may be short on the kind of technical details photographers appreciate, Adventures Among Ants contains plenty of photographs that show what can be achieved when you combine entomological knowledge with photographic skill. The book features some of Mark’s best ant photography: not just portraits, these pictures reveal details of the complex behavior of ants, allowing glimpses into lives that few could have imagined. Adventures Among Ants is aptly named: I recommend this book to all who are interested in insect behavior, as well as for those who want a glimpse into the life of a globetrotting entomologist and photographer.
Adventures Among Ants is published by the University of California Press, from which I received my copy. All photographs courtesy of the University of California Press and Mark Moffett.