How to subdue an ant…

I have been reading sections of Robert Hooke’s Micrographia for my Ento. 101 project.

Micrographia: Some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies Made by Magnifying Glasses with Observations and Inquiries Thereupon, was published by The Royal Society in 1665, and it grew to be the most popular work of science in its era. It was the first book largely devoted to microscopy, and amoung the many subjects that Hooke chose to look at was the pismire, or ant.

However, Hooke had a problem – a problem which many bug photographers can appreciate:

This was a creature, more troublesom to be drawn, then any of the rest, for I could not, for a good while, think of a way to make it suffer its body to ly quiet in a natural posture; but whil’st it was alive, if its feet were fetter’d in Wax or Glew, it would so twist and wind its body, that I could not any wayes get a good view of it; and if I killed it, its body was so little, that I did often spoile the shape of it, before I could throughly view it: for this is the nature of these minute Bodies, that as soon, almost, as ever their life is destroy’d, their parts immediately shrivel, and lose their beauty…”

Finding that glueing down the feet did not work, Hooke finally managed to develop a routine to subdue his subject so that he could observe it under the microscope and draw it:

Hooke's Pismire

Having insnar’d several of these into a small Box, I made choice of the tallest grown among them, and separating it from the rest, I gave it a Gill of Brandy, or Spirit of Wine, which after a while e’en knock’d him down dead drunk, so that he became moveless, though at first putting in he struggled for a pretty while very much, till at last, certain bubbles issuing out of its mouth, it ceased to move; this (because I had before found them quickly to recover again, if they were taken out presently) I suffered to lye above an hour in the Spirit; and after I had taken it out, and put its body and legs into a natural posture, remained moveless about an hour; but then, upon a sudden, as if it had been awaken out of a drunken sleep, it suddenly reviv’d and ran away; being caught, and serv’d as before, he for a while continued struggling and striving, till at last there issued several bubbles out of its mouth, and then, tanquam animam expirasset†, he remained moveless for a good while; but at length again recovering, it was again redipt, and suffered to lye some hours in the Spirit; notwithstanding which, after it had layen dry some three or four hours, it again recovered life and motion…

So there you have it: another reason for a bug photographer to carry a flask of brandy…

Could this be one of the secret weapons in Alex Wild’s already potent arsenal of ant photography techniques?

† “acting as if he had given up the ghost

This entry was posted in Blog Link, Formicidae, History, Hymenoptera, Microscopy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .


  1. Kurt 4 January, 2011 at 7:36 AM #

    Great tip Adrian! I wonder if ants like cheap brandy πŸ˜€

    • Adrian Thysse 4 January, 2011 at 1:14 PM #

      πŸ™‚ Cheap is OK, but must be fortified with sugar… πŸ˜‰

  2. biobabbler 4 January, 2011 at 8:39 AM #

    Nice. I think I certainly would prefer the brandy treatment to having my feet glued, or even time in the refrigerator. I LOVE old science books. Charming. =)

    • Adrian Thysse 4 January, 2011 at 1:16 PM #

      I love the old books as well, even when they are only digital images! I would love to be able to see and hold the original copies…

  3. Ted C. MacRae 4 January, 2011 at 12:44 PM #

    How I wish we contemporary scientists had license to submit our papers written with such poetry!

    • Adrian Thysse 4 January, 2011 at 1:18 PM #

      These old science texts are fascinating and often beautifully written…they are definitely leading me astray!

  4. Susannah 19 January, 2011 at 3:20 PM #

    I must try this on the next beetle that stumbles into my lair!

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