Peter Slingsby

You prob­a­bly know him as South Africa’s map man, but the car­tog­ra­pher has an­other huge pas­sion: ants. His new book, Ants of South­ern Africa, is the first lo­cal ant guide ever pub­lished and it fea­tures more than 600 species with in­cred­i­ble pho­tos, il­lus­tra

go! - - Upfront In Brief -

Why ants, and why now? I’ve been in­ter­ested in ants since my child­hood; the logo I use on all my maps is an ant. For years I was frus­trated by the ab­sence of an easy ant guide. There are web­sites with plenty of pics of shriv­elled, dead ants and de­scrip­tions full of jar­gon, but noth­ing to help an am­a­teur, an ed­u­ca­tor or even a “puz­zled pro­fes­sional” get quick guid­ance.

Why are ants so of­ten mis­un­der­stood by hu­mans? I think there are quite a few hu­mans who would pre­fer a world in which there were only hu­mans. Or maybe hu­mans plus a few dogs, cats and other do­mes­tic an­i­mals, with the more spec­tac­u­lar crea­tures locked up in a zoo. Peo­ple don’t un­der­stand that the web of life on earth is vast and in­tri­cate, and ev­ery lit­tle bit plays a role in keep­ing the whole thing go­ing. Ants in the home, in your jam and in that left-over cake you for­got to put away are a darn nui­sance. But those “pest ants” are al­most al­ways ones that hu­mans have spread around the world them­selves.

How does one be­gin such a mas­sive un­der­tak­ing? Enor­mous amounts of read­ing, lots of de­ci­sions about what and what not to in­clude, and sourc­ing pic­tures. I had a back op­er­a­tion in 2016 that forced me to lie flat for sev­eral weeks – com­pul­sory re­search and plan­ning time, with­out dis­trac­tions!

Was it a chal­lenge to make the book ac­ces­si­ble? Yes, it was. I hope I’ve met that chal­lenge. Many ants are very small, al­most in­vis­i­ble if you’re long-sighted, and dif­fi­cult to tell apart with­out a mag­ni­fy­ing glass. I’ve tried to in­di­cate what can and what can’t be iden­ti­fied with the naked eye, sup­ple­mented with size, colour, out­stand­ing fea­tures, best time of day to look for them, habi­tat and the like. The pho­tos are ex­cep­tional. Tell us about Philip Herbst and his con­tri­bu­tion. Philip is a car­di­ol­o­gist at Stel­len­bosch Uni­ver­sity and macropho­tog­ra­phy is his hobby. As he puts it, macropho­tog­ra­phy en­ables him to see tiny crea­tures in all their true glory. His in­sect pho­tos on the on­line por­tal iSpot caught my eye. I sent him some mys­tery ants and asked him to take pho­tos of them so I could send the shots to the Cal­i­for­nia Academy of Sci­ence (CalA­cad) for iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. The re­sult­ing pho­tos – of ants only 1,8 mm long – were in­cred­i­ble. In no time he was out in the Tyger­berg Hills pho­tograph­ing his lo­cal ants, and I was col­lect­ing ants from the Ceder­berg and up the West Coast for him to shoot. Sev­eral ship­ments of ants ar­rived from KZN by air… There are more than 100 species in the book pho­tographed by Philip. His ant pho­to­graphs are as good as any I have ever seen.

Tells us about the “anting trips” you did for re­search. My wife Mag­gie and I made sev­eral trips to the Ceder­berg, the Lange­berg, Cape Columbine and all over the Cape Penin­sula, pri­mar­ily col­lect­ing ants for Philip to pho­to­graph, but also just to look at ants and ex­pand our knowl­edge. Later we started col­lect­ing ants at places like Si­mon­skloof near Mon­tagu, to send to Cal­i­for­nia. They have the largest col­lec­tion of ant spec­i­mens in the world and their aim is to pho­to­graph ev­ery sin­gle ant species on earth. They have 24 000 and count­ing, I be­lieve.

Why are pug­na­cious ants your favourite kind? They have at­ti­tude. They at­tack in­stantly on con­tact – they don’t even sniff you first. If you thump the ground near their nests, they’ll swarm to­wards you with in­tent. Yet they can’t hurt you at all. You can stand among them with bare feet while they try to bite you all over – a sort of tick­ling sen­sa­tion as they can’t pen­e­trate your tough hu­man hide. They’re also the pri­mary ants in­volved in the safe dis­tri­bu­tion of fyn­bos seeds – with­out them we’d have no buchu or rooi­bos tea, no pin­cush­ion proteas and no mimetes.

What as­pect of ant be­hav­iour do you find most in­trigu­ing? At the risk of sound­ing an­thro­po­mor­phic, I think they care for their young. The eggs, lar­vae, co­coons or pu­pae are al­ways vig­or­ously de­fended and im­me­di­ately car­ried to safety if the nest is dis­turbed. That’s what all truly so­cial an­i­mals – in­clud­ing hu­mans – do best.

What’s next? Mag­gie and I are busy with maps of the Tankwa Ka­roo and the Fish River Canyon, and we’re hop­ing to re­vise and reis­sue our 20-year-old book about place names in the Cape. Ants of South­ern Africa is pub­lished by Slingsby Press and costs R295 (ex­clud­ing postage) at slings­ or in book­shops.

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