Bert Holldobler

Citation metadata

Date: 2010
Document Type: Biography
Length: 1,206 words

Document controls

Main content

About this Person
Born: June 25, 1936 in Erling-Andechs, Germany
Nationality: German
Occupation: Zoologist
Other Names: Hölldobler, Berthold Karl; Hoelldobler, Berthold Karl; Hoelldobler, Bert
Updated:Dec. 2, 2010

Born June 25, 1936, in Erling-Andechs, Bavaria, Germany; son of Karl (a physician) and Maria (a homemaker) Hölldobler; married Friederike M. Probst (a hotel economist), February 9, 1980; children: Jacob, Stefan, Sebastian. Education: University of Wuerzburg, Staatsexamen, 1962, Dr.Rer.Nat., 1965; University of Frankfurt, Dr.Habil., 1969. Memberships: International Union for the Study of Social Insects, Society for the Study of Evolution, American Academy of Arts and Sciences (fellow), National Academy of Sciences, American Association for the Advancement of Science (fellow), American Society of Naturalists, Ecological Society of America, Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften (fellow), German National Academy of Sciences, American Philosophical Society, German Zoological Society. Addresses: Office: School of Life Sciences, P.O. Box 874501, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 85287-4501. E-mail:


University of Frankfurt, Frankfurt, Germany, assistant professor, 1966-69, professor of zoology, 1972-73; Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, research associate in zoology, 1969-71, professor of biology, 1973-90, Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology, 1982-90; University of Wuerzburg, Wuerzburg, Germany, professor of zoology and director of Institute of Behavioral Physiology, 1989-2004; University of Arizona, Tempe, Foundation Professor of Life Sciences and member of the Center for Social Dynamics and Complexity, 2004--. Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, Andrew D. White Professor at Large, 2002--.


John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellow, 1980; Senior Scientist Award, Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung, 1987; Leibniz Prize, German Science Foundation, 1989; R.R. Hawkins Award, Association of American Publishers Professional and Scholarly Publishing Division, 1990, for The Ants; Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, 1991, for The Ants; Phi Beta Kappa Prize, 1995, for Journey to the Ants; Science Book of the Year, 1995; Karl Ritter von Frisch Medal, 1996; Science Prize of the German Zoological Society, 1996; Alfried Krupp Science Prize, Körber Prize for European Sciences, 1996; Franklin-Humboldt Prize, German-American Academic Council, 1999; National Merit Medal of Germany, 2000; Maximilian Medal, State of Bavaria, 2003; Werner Heisenberg Medal, Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, 2003; Treviranus Medal, German Society of Biologists, 2006; and several honorary degrees.



  • (With Martin Lindauer) Experimental Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology: In Memoriam Karl von Frisch, 1886-1982, Sinauer Associates (Sunderland, MA), 1985.
  • (With Edward O. Wilson) The Ants, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1990.
  • (With Edward O. Wilson) Journey to the Ants: A Story of Scientific Exploration, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1994.
  • (With others) Herbivory in Leaf-Cutting Ants, Springer (New York, NY), 2003.
  • (With Edward O. Wilson) The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies, illustrated by Margaret C. Nelson, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2009.

Contributor to scientific journals; coeditor of several journals, including Psyche, 1973--, and Behavioral Ecology and Social Biology, 1976-89. Serves on the editorial boards of a number of professional journals.



Bert Hölldobler's encyclopedic volume The Ants, which he wrote with Harvard University entomology professor Edward O. Wilson, deals with myrmecology--the study of ants. Internationally renowned for their research in ant social behavior, the authors assembled more than 700 pages of facts on the insect. The Ants details the role ants play in the ecological balance of nature and discusses the behavioral traits of the insects, particularly as they parallel human actions. Containing information for both the novice and professional entomologist alike, the work includes numerous illustrations, classification lists, a glossary of terms, descriptions of various members of the ant species, and a bibliography. "The book is replete with tidbits that fascinate by themselves," noted Thomas E. Lovejoy in the New York Times Book Review. The critic added: "Science is rarely good literature. The Ants is an exalting exception."

Hölldobler and Wilson, who were awarded a Pulitzer Prize for The Ants, continued their successful collaboration with Journey to the Ants: A Story of Scientific Exploration. Rather than include an extensive bibliography or glossary as they did with their first book, the authors define scientific terms as they use them. They also comment on their work in the study of ants. C. Ronald Carroll noted in American Scientist that while this book includes fewer scientific facts and details, "it clearly captures the essence of why ants are so interesting to ecologists, behaviorists and evolutionary biologists and of why ants are so successful as a species."

As the authors note, ants of the Amazon forests make up four times more animal biomass than all other vertebrates combined. They rely on a number of chemicals, or pheromones, to transmit messages, such as alarm and attraction. Described are the relationships ants have with other creatures with which they cooperate, fight for territory and food, or exploit. Ants cannot survive cold, and drought is their greatest enemy. Carroll called the volume "a joy to read."

A decade later Hölldobler and Wilson published The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies. In reviewing this volume in the New York Times Book Review, Steve Jones noted that the science "has made enormous strides since then." The "superorganism" of the title is a reference to the complex structure and organization of ant, bee, wasp, and termite colonies that falls somewhere between a single organism and the ecosystem. The word was first coined by ant expert William Morton in 1928, and it has been in and out of favor since that time. The Superorganism, which was five years in the making, draws on vast amounts of research and concludes that the term should be revived.

In The Superorganism, Hölldobler and Wilson use technical terms freely. Tim Wilson wrote in the New York Review of Books Online that for this reason, the book "may reach a smaller audience than it deserves, which is a great pity, for this is a profoundly important book with immediate relevance for anyone interested in the trends now shaping our own societies. ... Parallels between the ants and ourselves are striking for the light they shed on the nature of everyday human experiences. Some ants get forced into low-status jobs and are prevented from becoming upwardly mobile by other members of the colony. Garbage dump workers, for example, are confined to their humble and dangerous task of removing rubbish from the nest by other ants who respond aggressively to the odors that linger on the garbage workers' bodies."

The authors provide an account of various forms of ant reproduction and note that ants count steps in finding their way home. While some colonies have queens that can reproduce millions of eggs over ten or more years, others are repopulated by female workers who mate with males. Gamergates are female ants who engage with a male, then snap off his genitals, which they use to continue insemination for up to an hour, then discard as they did the rest of the body. The gamergates are overseen by sterile sisters who regulate the colony and who will eat the eggs of the gamergates as a form of control. The authors also describe attines, often called leaf-cutter ants, which are a species that farms mushrooms. They harvest leaves and store them underground, where heat and humidity produce a fungal growth, the strain of which has existed for millions of years.

Jones concluded: "There is no shortage of first-rate natural history here." Library Journal contributor Annette Aiello wrote: "While the superorganism concept is not new, it has never been stated explicitly or explored on such a grand scale."




  • American Scientist, January 1, 1996, C. Ronald Carroll, review of Journey to the Ants: A Story of Scientific Exploration, p. 74.
  • Library Journal, October 15, 2008, Annette Aiello, review of The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies, p. 91.
  • Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 22, 1990, review of The Ants, p. 1.
  • Natural History, February 1, 2009, Robert R. Dunn, review of The Superorganism, p. 30.
  • Nature, November 20, 2008, review of The Superorganism, p. 320.
  • New York Times Book Review, July 29, 1990, Thomas E. Lovejoy, review of The Ants, p. 3; November 23, 2008, Steve Jones, review of The Superorganism, p. 10.
  • Publishers Weekly, September 5, 1994, review of Journey to the Ants, p. 103.
  • Science Activities, September 22, 1995, John W. McLure, review of Journey to the Ants, p. 37.
  • Washington Post Book World, March 25, 1990, review of The Ants, p. 4.


  • Arizona State University School of Life Sciences Web site, (December 24, 2009), profile of author.
  • New York Review of Books Online, (February 26, 2009), Tim Flannery, review of The Superorganism.
  • New York Times Online, (June 16, 2009), Claudia Dreifus, "A Conversation with Bert Hölldobler: Insects Succeeding through Cooperation."*


Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1000046184