Mark Moffett always liked bugs. But unlike lots of kids who stuff critters into bottles and forget about them, young Mark enjoyed just watching what they were doing. “I’m the Martha Stewart of dirt,” quips Dr. Moffett, of Greenport, who is today a highly acclaimed entomologist and photojournalist for Smithsonian and National Geographic magazines. Photographs from his new book, “Adventures Among Ants,” along with a live ant colony, are on view this month at The Sirens’ Song Gallery in Greenport.
The Midwestern boy who cloned paramecia at age 10 dropped out of high school at 16, then wiggled through academia in programs tolerant of his self-directed way of learning. He earned a Ph.D. in ecology at Harvard under the tutelage of Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist Edward O. Wilson.
He and his wife live in Brooklyn as well as Greenport, where they went to look at an amazingly inexpensive but charming old house he first thought was in Greenpoint but he’d misunderstood. When the geographic issue was cleared up, he went to look at it anyway and fell in love with the village.
If you caught him as a guest on “The Colbert Report” in May, you know that he’s a camera-gripping daredevil who dangles from helicopters and charges up trees with Indian bull elephants in hot pursuit. He takes these risks to capture images that reveal the few degrees of separation between us and the denizens of nature.
“People bond with the natural world as they do with most things — through emotional connections and unexpected encounters,” he said in a recent interview, and “they care more about relationships than conservation.”
In his book, Dr. Moffett’s images work in tandem with his easygoing text, telling stories that portray ant relationships as microcosms of our own. To counter their minuscule size and to anthropomorphize their world, he enlarges his photographs: A flake of food looks like a boulder being lugged back to the nest by an organized work force. The largest ant bears the brunt of the haul. The next in size picks up the rear and a third — poor gal — uses her body to plug a pothole, smoothing the way for those slogging home. And after all this, their offering may not be accepted by the colony.
Food gatherers return to the nest like vendors offering goods at Macy’s. They present their stash — a cookie crumb, a cockroach — before critical sisters who pounce on what’s fit for the queen and her brood, toss what they don’t like and then dispatch the foragers back out for more.
“Ant colonies are tightly knit sisterhoods,” explained Dr. Moffett. Females promptly jettison males — in the minority and lacking useful work skills — from the nest. Slaves to a pleasure zone that allows them an exhilarating but brief life, males have but one function: to mate with the queen. Then they die. The sisters live on, tenaciously tending to the queen mother and her young.
“There is no ambiguity in ant colonies; no personal issues, no questions about who will do what,” said Dr. Moffett, adding that “ants can teach us what it takes to run a city with a million or more citizens.” They’ve evolved an elaborate infrastructure with a division of labor; beyond gathering food, they build roads and sanitation systems, defend territory and protect the nest.
One image of a single ant attaching itself to about 30 nest-mates reveals how Panamanian army ants on the move will construct living structures to provide temporary housing for the entire family. They link themselves together to build a bivouac, or basketlike nest, forming a container that can accommodate hundreds of thousands of workers with the queen and her young hidden inside.
Young ants are strong fighters. They’ll battle to their deaths to save the nest and instinctively attack a perceived foe, an ant with a scent distinctly different from their own. But some species, like honey pot ants in the southwestern United States, find tactical deception more prudent than combat. Lacking the numbers to protect their territory, they behave more like leaders at peace talks than soldiers in trenches. They’ll posture, circle one another, puff themselves up and even stand on an object to appear large and intimidating.
Squeamish? Find comfort in knowing that ants are fastidiously clean. They’ve been composting and recycling for millennia. Some of the largest ant colonies have sanitation squads that remove debris, ferret out contaminants and bury them in garbage disposal areas that lie 20 feet beneath the nest. In Panama, leaf cutter ants raise a fungus on the leaves they collect to sanitize them.
“It’s not boring,” said Melissa Wells, Dr. Moffett’s wife, videographer and assistant, about her travels with her intrepid husband. There have been some scary moments, she said, “like the night in Botswana when Mark’s camera flash caught the eye of a bull elephant. He came at me, ears spread and flapping wildly as he let out an earth-shaking growl. I froze. Mark came and stood behind me and the beast calmed down, then trotted off.”
Some episodes with ants are just as terrifying. In Ghana, Dr. Moffett blundered into a swarm of driver ants “moving at about 20 meters an hour with knife-blade mandibles.” You don’t want to be surrounded by a solid mass of them on the ground, a reason why African mothers carry their babies on their backs and do not place them in cribs.
If aliens ever invade us, Dr. Moffett suggested we pray they are like humans, not mutations of the Australian bulldog ant, which can grow to be an inch long. “If one turns to look at you, run! They have stingers like syringes that pump poison into their victims.”
But mostly, ants are vital to our environment. They rotate soil and nutrients, move seeds around and discard the debris we leave on the ground.
Dr. Moffett’s beautiful photographs suck readers into the universe we all share with one of the world’s most ubiquitous and intriguing species. Can we pull together to keep house in the cooperative ways that ants do? Caroline Waloski, director of The Sirens’ Song Gallery, said she hopes so. She wants the show “to bring art and science together and create an educational experience families can enjoy.”
It’s also a chance to get to know our neighbor, Dr. Bugs (as he is known on his website), a fascinating creature in his own right. Copies of his book are available at the gallery.
Click here to see Dr. Moffett interviewed on The Colbert Report.
Adventure Among Ants’
Photographs by Greenport journalist on view through Nov. 1 at The Sirens’ Song Gallery, Greenport.