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The Super-Organism – Bert Holldobler and E. O. Wilson ****

There’s something about super-organisms – the collective creature made up of insects like bees or ants – that seem to bring out the glossy in a book publisher. The Buzz about Beeswas all on glossy paper with piles of colour illustrations – so is The Super-Organism, though here the format is coffee table and the beautiful photographs crop up more frequently. Don’t be fooled by the format, though, this is no coffee table picture book.
We absolutely loved The Buzz about Bees, so it was interesting to see what the approach would be here. First it’s broader. Not only covering the bee super-organism, we also get ants and leaf cutters. It’s also in more technical depth than the bee book. Sometimes this is useful, giving more insights into these complex living mechanisms, at others the result is more complex than it needs to be. In The Super-Organism there’s more depth, more about the origins of the super-organism, more details of experiments to determine just what’s going on.
Of the two books we do marginally prefer The Buzz about Bees – it comes across as more friendly and more excited about the bees, and the text is more easily understood. The Super-Organism is just too big, both physically (my arms were aching when I finished reading it) and also has too much information, sometimes at an unnecessarily technical level. However it is well written by this very literate pair of scientists and certainly repays the effort of reading it. Perhaps biased by having read the bee book, the bees were my favourite part of this, mostly because they were old friends, but also because of their synergy with human society.
So not a book for you if you’ve weak arms or a fear of being bombarded with Latin tags and words like eusociality – but a massive gem if you really want to get into the workings of these bizarre multi-creature organisms.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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