About

I'm Mike Pope. I live in the Seattle area. I've been a technical writer and editor for over 35 years. I'm interested in software, language, music, movies, books, motorcycles, travel, and ... well, lots of stuff.

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The designer of a new system must not only be the implementor and the first large-scale user; the designer should also write the first user manual. ... If I had not participated fully in all these activities, literally hundreds of improvements would never have been made, because I would never have thought of them or perceived why they were important.

Donald Knuth



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Blog Statistics

Dates
First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 6/2/2024

Totals
Posts - 2654
Comments - 2677
Hits - 2,669,938

Averages
Entries/day - 0.35
Comments/entry - 1.01
Hits/day - 349

Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 8:47 PM Pacific


  10:06 AM

A completely random entry, I guess.

If insects creep you out, stop reading.

I have a collection of books about insects; they're more interesting than most people probably think. And most people probably also don't realize quite how much of life on earth, at least outside the water, consists of bugs. Bugs are small, but there's just so dang many of them. There are huge numbers of species (> 250,000 species of beetles alone), and of course countless individuals. Adam had himself quite a job in Eden.

(Psst! Is this guy blogging about bugs? Yes, sorry.)

People joke that after a nukular war, the only thing left would be cockroaches. The long history of that particular genus suggests that they're survivors, and what's a little thermonuclear blast now and again? Hey, they've seen worse.

But the really successful insects are the social insects -- bees, termintes, wasps, and ants -- and among those colonial types, the most dominant of all are the ants. Ants are everywhere -- not just in your picnic, but from the Arctic circle to the rain forest (duh). Individual ants are hardly anything, just protoplasmic specks with ur-brains the size of an ... uh ... insect. Smaller. But put them together in a colony and amazing things can happen.[1]

My friend Steve and I took an interest in ants when we were boys, and after reading about them, we would -- in the interests of scientific research, of course -- tear open anthills and watch the wee beings scramble around. As much fun as this was (for us, not the ants), we did actually learn something by watching and seeing the evidence, just as we'd read, of egg chambers, of pupas being aired, and so on.

As a supposed grown-up, I've confined by research more to books than to undoing the efforts of all those worker ants. There's some dang good reading on ants, if you like that sort of thing, and one book I've enjoyed poking in is Journey to the Ants, a personalized and popularized version of the massive, definitive tome The Ants. Wilson and his co-ant-o-phile Bert Hölldobler are perhaps the world's leading experts on ants, and with their big volume and the more, uh, customer-facing version, they've covered probably anything you'd ever like to know about ants.

Anyway, I was a-reading in the latter not long ago and ran across some information that I thought put things into perspective. Yeah, yeah, we're so smart and we rule the planet, yadda-yadda. Not so fast there, hoss. Consider this:
The abundance of ants is legendary. A worker is less than one-millionth the size of a human being, yet ants taken collectively rival people as dominant organisms on land. Lean against a tree almost anywhere, and the first creature that crawls on you will probably be an ant.

The British entomologist C. B. Williams once calculated that the number of insects alive on earth at a given moment is one million trillion (1018). If, to take a conservative figure, 1 percent of this host is ants, their total population is ten thousand trillion. Individual workers weigh on average between 1 and 5 milligrams, according to species. When combined, all ants in the world taken together weigh about as much as all human beings. But being so finely divided into tiny individuals, this biomass saturates the terrestrial environment.

[...]

In the rain forest near Manaus, Brazil's principal city of the central Amazon, the German ecologists L. Beck, E. J. Fittkau, and H. Klinge found that ants and termites together compose nearly a third of the animal biomass: when all kinds of animals, large and small, from jaguars and monkeys down to roundworms and mites, are weighed, nearly a third of the weight consists of the flesh of ants and termites. These insects, along with the other two prevailing colonial forms, the stingless bees and polybiine wasps, make up an astonishing 80 percent of the insect biomass.

[...]

All together, these creatures seem likely to constitute half or more of the insect biomass.

-- Bert Hölldobler & Edward O. Wilson, Journey to the Ants
[1] That Aesop guy was onto something when he used the an ant to represent industriousness -- they're, like, the poster child for the work ethic. Then again, and somewhat more disturbingly, their success as a colony is based on a creepy selflessness and rigid hiererachy in which every individual has a role that they're bred to (literally) and that they carry out unquestioningly until they die. Which, lest we get too worked up, is based in genetics, since all members of a colony are sisters. It's just a way-big sorority, without the pledging. Kinda.

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