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
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 slingsbymaps.com or in bookshops.