By Brooke Coupal
Biological Sciences Asst. Prof. Christina Kwapich became hooked on ants after reading “The Ants” by Bert Hölldobler and E. O. Wilson when she was about 9 years old.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning book set her on a path of studying insects – and eventually co-writing her own book with Hölldobler called “The Guests of Ants: How Myrmecophiles Interact with Their Hosts” after she joined the UML faculty in 2020.
“It is funny to meet your hero and then be even more impressed,” Kwapich says of Hölldobler, who also served as her postdoctoral advisor at Arizona State University. “It really was a pleasure to work with him.”
The Association of American Publishers (AAP) named “The Guests of Ants,” published by Harvard University Press under the Belknap imprint, one of three 2023 PROSE Award finalists in the biological sciences category.
“The 2023 PROSE Award entries considered by our judges illustrate the wide breadth of excellence, diversity, and merit in scholarly works published today, in all areas of academic study,” said Emily Bokelman, manager of member programs at AAP.
“The Guests of Ants” examines myrmecophiles, which are organisms ranging from reptiles to bacteria that live within ant colonies by exploiting their communication systems. These parasitic invaders trick ants using a variety of furtive tactics, such as tickling their mouthparts or mimicking the way they smell.
“For every species of ants, there are dozens of these guests that live inside the colony, so the colony itself is like a whole ecosystem,” Kwapich says. “There’s this hidden wellspring of biodiversity just below our feet.”
Kwapich and Hölldobler reviewed research spanning back to the 1700s while putting together the 576-page book, which includes more than 200 color photos.
“The book is for everyone,” Kwapich says. “We included a primer at the beginning about ant biology and the way that a colony acts like a superorganism, so if people don’t know a lot about ants, they can get that quick introduction and dive right into where all these creatures fit in the colony.”