Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants. By Eleanor
Spicer Rice and Rob Dunn, 2017. The University
of Chicago Press. (ISBN-13 978-0-226-44581).
96 pages. Softcover. $14.00.
Ants are very busy creatures, helping in
many ways with the development and mainte-
nance of forests, turning soil, assisting in the
decomposition of dead organisms, and helping
to regulate pest populations such as termites
and gypsy moths. Although we don’t always see
them, “most ants spend their time pulling
threads, stitching together the quilt of the natural
world.” They are found everywhere, in numerous
habitats—under sidewalks, doormats, garbage
cans, and rocks, in building insulation, and on
golf courses and deserts. And a good selection
of ants have gone marching down into Dr. Eleanor’s
books of common ants, four volumes filled with
fascinating and often surprising information about
these six-legged farmers and hunter-gatherers. The
books, not meant to be textbooks or field guides,
are difficult to put down once reading has started.
The information is focused on ants found in,
though not necessarily native to, the United
States. One book is a general presentation,
while the other three feature common ants in
California, Chicago, and New York City.
Much is packed into these delightful volumes.
Each begins with an introduction containing
detailed descriptions of ant anatomy, life cycle,
and activity in the ant colony. This is followed by
in-depth discussions of 12 to 18 interesting ant
species, many of which are unfamiliar to most people. Each featured ant story begins with its species
name, any aliases, size, habitat, and diet. It then
focuses on vivid descriptions of its life and interactions with other species. The captivating portrayals
of ant life processes and the characteristics of individual species turn the complex into the comprehensible. A sampling of the information that can
be found in the ant stories includes the reason
Pavement Ants are called miniature farmers, how
Winnow Ants assist in the cultivation of forest
herbs and wildflowers, how Harvester Ants aid fossil hunters, why the Bobwhite Quail fears Southern
Fire Ants, where Crazy Ants get their name, and
the odd reality that some ants when crushed emit
In these appealing little books, the reader
can learn much about ant behavior—the pheromone trails they create to announce a splendid
food location, their defense systems of jaws
and stingers, the processes by which some species gather food and how some of it is stored
in the ant hills, how they rely more on smell
and touch stimuli and less on light and sound,
and why some ants play dead.
The books are written in a pleasant, engag-
ing, conversational style—the author is sharing
stories. Well-grounded in biology, the stories
feature an abundant share of wit. The habit of
thief ants running through the nests of other
ant species is likened to “children running down
the aisles of a Toys “R” Us on a shopping spree,”
and concerning Carpenter Ants, “they just whit-
tle while they work.” Clever analogies are also
used to clarify activities in the ant colony. Using
a comparison of the dissimilar physical traits of
her husband and his brother, Dr. Eleanor illus-
trates the concept that the distinct variations of
the Big Headed Ants provide advantages for
their unique behaviors.
The books are filled with clear and colorful
illustrations showing single ants, groups of
ants, and ants doing what ants do. They would
be appropriate for students in middle school,
high school, and college, as well as the general
public. There are suggestions for students
wishing to expand their learning about ants.
These include tips for raising ants and for using
formicaria, which can be purchased or
There is considerable overlap in the four
books. The Introduction, Frequently Asked
Questions, instructions on “How to Keep Ants
at Home,” Glossary, and Resource sections are
the same. There are 25 different ant species, each
appearing in from one to four of the volumes.
Two of the books (California and Chicago) also
include short epilogues.
Perhaps these words of Dr. Eleanor best
express why the study of ants is so rewarding.
“When we understand these elements of nature,
getting to know them by name and habits, we
will always be surrounded by friends.”
Retired Biology Teacher
Presque Isle High School
Presque Isle, ME 04769
The American Biology Teacher, Vol. 80, No 5, pages. 392–395, ISSN 0002-7685, electronic ISSN 1938-4211. © 2018 National Association of Biology Teachers. All rights
reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Press’s Reprints and Permissions web page,
www.ucpress.edu/journals.php?p=reprints. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/abt.2018.80.5.392.
AMANDA L. GLAZE, DEPARTMENT EDITOR