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The Fire Ant Wars

Nature, Science, and Public Policy in Twentieth-Century America

The Fire Ant Wars

Nature, Science, and Public Policy in Twentieth-Century America

Sometime in the first half of the twentieth century, a coterie of fire ants came ashore from South American ships docked in Mobile, Alabama. Fanning out across the region, the fire ants invaded the South, damaging crops, harassing game animals, and hindering harvesting methods. Responding to a collective call from southerners to eliminate these invasive pests, the U.S. Department of Agriculture developed a campaign that not only failed to eradicate the fire ants but left a wake of dead wildlife, sickened cattle, and public protest.

With political intrigue, environmental tragedy, and such figures as Rachel Carson and E. O. Wilson, The Fire Ant Wars is a grippingly perceptive tale of changing social attitudes and scientific practices. Tracing the political and scientific eradication campaigns, Joshua Buhs’s bracing study uses the saga as a means to consider twentieth-century American concepts of nature and environmental stewardship. In telling the story, Buhs explores how human concepts of nature evolve and how these ideas affect the natural and social worlds.

Spotlighting a particular issue to discuss larger questions of science, public perceptions, and public policy—from pre-environmental awareness to the activist years of the early environmental movement—The Fire Ant Wars will appeal to historians of science, environmentalists, and biologists alike.

256 pages | 5 halftones, 13 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2004

Biological Sciences: Biology--Systematics, Ecology, Natural History

History: American History

History of Science


"Surprisingly effective in reminding us that the battlefields of this war between disparate social animals-fire ants and humans-were often far removed from the insects’ habitats, Joshua Buhs’s absorbing narrative is laced with anecdotal details extracted from official documents and private letters, and he elegantly uses tact and intelligence to navigate through the minefields of the fire ant wars whose combatants included agricultural agencies, environmental groups, conservationists, and university scientists. A stimulating analysis of the cultural, political, environmental, and biological consequences of the war against the fire ants."

Murray S. Blum, author of Fundamentals of Insect Physiology

"Joshua Buhs uses the story of the fire ants in the American South after World War Two to show just how intricate the connections between ’nature’ and ’culture’ were, how culture shaped what humans saw in nature, and how the ant took advantage of human disturbances in ecology of the post-war South to expand across the region."

Thomas Dunlap, author of Saving America's Wildlife: Ecology and the American Mind, 1850-1990

"The story of the imported fire ants is an American entomological epic and a classic in the history of development versus environment. Buhs’s study is thorough and will be the history of record for this subject."

Edward O. Wilson

"Joshua Blu Buhs documents the extraordinary story of PR, public expectations, politics and panic as the pressure for the fire ant eradication campaign took hold. He describes how the excesses of the campaign altered popular perceptions of the pest and played no small part in the emergence of the grass-roots environmental movement in the US. He shows how the balance of bureaucracy and power shifted, and indeed still shifts, from the eradicators to the environmentalists and back."

Gaden S. Robinson | Times Literary Supplement

"Buhs had access to a vast amount of unpublished archival material in private and public collections, so that his book must be considered the definitive historical account of the ’fire ant wars’. . . . What really sets this book apart is the historical detail Buhs provides of interactions among federal bureaucracies, universities, individual scientists, and the American public. . . . All of us who work on fire ants should read this book and take its lessons to heart, as should anyone interested in the interaction between science and public policy"

Donald H. Feener | Ecology

" In The Fire Ant Wars Buhs has produced a clearly written, impressively researched, and fascinating account of the postwar campaign to  eradicate what is perhaps the American South’s most famous insect  pest,Solenopsis Invicta, the imported red fire ant. The human side of the story is especially interesting, and where The Fire Ant Wars really shines is in its exploration of clashing scientific egos, 
bureaucratic maneuvering, ruthless ecological management and the changing historical context that brought such management into question. . . .An excellent example of sophisticated environmental history, a book broad in its reach and full of nuance in its interpretations. In particular it serves as a focused yet inclusive case study for a number of topics—the history of pesticide use and risk, the evolution of federal environmental policy, the role of science and scientists in environmental advocacy."

Brian Allen Crake | H-Environment

"Joshua Buhs has written an engaging history of the life and times of the fire ant (Solenopsis invicta) in its invasion and conquest of
the USA. In doing so, Buhs offers a variety of ‘books’ within this one work: it is a natural history of fire ants, a case study of USA environmental policy and politics, an environmental history of the American South (with both regional and transnational aspects), a glimpse into the history of USA entomology, and a blend of agricultural history and the history of science and technology, all
based on impressive multi-archival research. . . . Author and publisher should be applauded for including such a wealth of useful figures, photographs, and illustrations. . . . A fine work of scholarship that I will enjoy using on classes in environmental and agricultural history. Others could find it useful for courses on environmental policy, history of science, and entomology, and the book will assuredly be warmly received by audiences within the general public."

Sterling Evans | Enivronmental Conservation

"This is a fascinating and highly readable book, the definitive treatment of one of the invasions that produced the field of invasion biology as well as catalyzed the development of American environmentalism."

Daniel Simberloff | Biological Invasions

"The Fire Ant Wars provides an excellent overview of attempts to eradicate Solenopsis invicta. Moreover, Buhs has achieved a wonderfully effective synthesis between the history of science and environmental history that should serve as model for future studies of the fascinating dynamic between nature and culture."

Frederick R. Davis | Journal of the History of Biology

"Out of a simple story, Buhs has spun a complicated tale that has much to say about our relationship with an environment that our very existence transforms. This is a challenging and satisfying book that I would heartily recommend to anyone with an interest in that relationship."

Matt Bright | Environmental Politics

"[Buhs] does an admirable job of weaving the thread of relevant bioogical information into the fabric of public policy so that one can easily see where policy has been informed by science and where policy has developed in willful ignorance of science. He does not take sides . . . but carefully sorts out the complexity of the issues."

C. Ronald Carroll | Ecoscience

"Joshua Blu Buhs’s very good The Fire Ant Wars is valuable for historians of science and environmental
historians. The author uses the case of the fire ant in the United States to explore the broader theme of the intersection of nature, science, policy, and regional culture. . . . At almost every turn, he achieves his ambitious goals. . . . The tale told here is fresh, in large measure because Buhs is an engaging storyteller and an elegant writer. And the characters—Rachel Carson and E. O. Wilson, among others —are well known, charismatic, and treated originally. The Fire Ant Wars merits a broad audience that should sweep across disciplinary boundaries."

Ari Kelman | Isis

"Joshua Blu Buhs’s book is a major contribution to our understanding of the science and public policy that combined after World War II in making war on fire ants....The Fire Ant Wars is an excellent book that combines thorough research, careful writing, and a convincing argument."

Pete Daniel | Agricultural History

"An important book about a controversial episode. . . . Buh has made a splendid contribution toward the efforts of environmental historians and historians of technology to find common ground."

John H. Perkins | Technology and Culture

"A fine work of scholarship that I will enjoy using in classes on environmental and agricultural history. Others could find it useful for courses on environmental policy, history of science and entomology, and the book will assuredly be warmly received by audiences within the general public."

Sterling Evans | Environmental Conservation

"The human side of the story is especially interesting, and where [the book] really shines is in its exploration of clashing scientific egos, bureaucratic maneuvering, ruthless ecological management and the changing historical context. . . . An excellent example of sophisticated environmental history, a book broad in its reach and full of nuance in its interpretations."

Brian Allen Drake | H-Net Book Review

Table of Contents

1. From South America to the American South, 1900-1950
2. Grins a Prohibitive Fracture, 1945-1957
3. Fire Ants, from Savage to Invincible, 1957-1972
4. The Fire Ant Wars, 1958-1983
5. The Practice of Nature, 1978-2000

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