Kye Hedlund knows his ants. Get him going and he’ll rattle off their
scientific names. His feet are up on his desk, his hands are folded behind
his head, and he’s looking off into the distance.

Formica schaufussi is the common lawn ant all throughout
the eastern coast, and I have it in my front yard,” he says. “People
around here probably have the black carpenter ant, Camponotus pennsylvanicus.
That one invades my house. Great big ant, so you’re aware of it.” And
those tiny little guys you find in your kitchen? “That most likely
is Monomorium minimum,” he says. “I have that one
in my house, too.”

Hedlund can tell you that there are about 200 ant species in North Carolina,
about 700 in North America, and about 10,000 worldwide. And what we know
about many of them scientifically doesn’t amount to, well, an anthill.
His specific ant interest is in systematics — the classification
of organisms and the evolutionary relationships among them (sometimes
also called taxonomy). There are fewer than ten ant systematists in the
United States, Hedlund says, mainly because the money isn’t there. “Generally,
with insects, if it doesn’t attack corn or tobacco, it doesn’t get any
funding. Fire ants have been the best thing that ever happened to ant
researchers,” he laughs. “But ants are pretty much ignored,
except for the small group of scientists compelled to study them.”

Hedlund’s compulsion? As a boy he found ants fascinating, as many do.
Then, fifteen or so years ago, he took a course in plant identification
in Carolina’s biology department, just for fun. But the botanists, he
says, already know too much.

Botanists came through here in the eighteenth century and found
what was here,” Hedlund says. “Insects, on the other hand,
are the majority of the world’s species, but are just virtually unknown.
We probably have described only one percent of the world’s insects.”

Hedlund got interested in biodiversity — the number of different
species of plants and animals in a given environment. As biodiversity
goes, things aren’t exactly rosy — in some places species are rapidly
disappearing before they’re scientifically studied, and before we know
much about the roles they played in their little corners of the world. “When
we cut down the Brazilian rainforest, for example, we’re losing a lot
of species that we hadn’t even known were there,” Hedlund says.

Just ask E.O. Wilson, a Harvard entomologist who has been a tireless
advocate for biodiversity and conservation — and who has always
been passionate about ants. Wilson recently released a book detailing
the 624 known Western-Hemisphere species of the ant genus Pheidole.
Wilson says that over half of the species in his book — 337, to
be exact — are new to science.

But calling Wilson an entomologist is a bit like calling Galileo a mathematician.
Wilson is the father of sociobiology (the branch of biology that conducts
comparative studies of the social organization of animals, including
humans, with regard to evolutionary history) and biophilia (in Wilson’s
words, “the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with
the rest of life”). He suggests that you imagine yourself listening
to an orchestra when, suddenly, the woodwinds leave the stage. Then the
horns. The strings. Until all that’s left is one bassoon. And finally
it falls silent.

That possibility bothers Hedlund. So he decided to help. You might guess
that he trooped out, found and identified some ant specimens, and placed
them in a museum. He did, and does. He’s a regular contributor to — and
one of six honorary curators of — North Carolina State University’s
Insect Collection.

But Hedlund isn’t your typical biologist. Or let me be more clear: he’s
not a biologist, period. There’s no lab bench in his office. No zoology
library down the hall. Not a microscope in sight. No, Hedlund is an associate
professor of…computer science?

Yep. For years, Hedlund designed integrated circuits — chips such
as those Intel Pentiums you always hear about on TV. But the work frustrated

Chip technology changes so fast,” he says. “You do something
and it’s relevant for two or three years, and the technology has moved
beyond it. I was tired of writing papers that get read by people that
go write more papers about your paper.

I wanted to do something that related to the world’s problems,” Hedlund
says. “I want to produce tools that other biologists can use.”

Enter Hedlund’s on-line catalog of North American ants. It is, Hedlund
says, a first step toward making the world’s knowledge about ants readily
accessible via the World Wide Web. It’s not a “Golden Guide” to
ants, Hedlund cautions, but a resource intended for any ecologist who
is interested in ants.

It’s dense, technical work,” he explains. “If an ecologist
has an ant before him, he has five questions to ask: what species is
this; how do I recognize this species; where does it occur; what does
it do in terms of its natural history; and where do I find out more?
The on-line catalog aims to compile everything that is known about those
five questions.”

Hedlund is the first to admit that research in computer science this
ain’t. On the other hand, most other ecologists wouldn’t be able to put
together a MySQL database that automatically generates web pages via
a UNIX server. So Hedlund has turned his experience in programming, databases,
and web development into a reference work for other scientists.

But that’s not enough for Hedlund. “As a computer scientist, I’m
a tool smith,” he says. “If you want to do the snakes of Panama,
or the butterflies of Brazil, okay, import all of my tools — and
then, of course, provide all of your own data — and you’ll be up
and running to do a web site similar to this, for other organisms.

I want to be the patron saint of the Web for systematists,” he
laughs. “These people are overworked, they don’t necessarily know
anything about computers, and the real underlying goal in all this is
to make it easy for them to make their work available on the Web. So
this ant project, although it’s pretty big even by itself, is more a
demonstration project.” Hedlund says that if researchers can think
of questions that they couldn’t even imagine without his web-based tools,
then his work will have been a success.

He imagines a user querying his database to find out what species are
in North Carolina.

We just crank that right out, and that’s produced on the web site,” he
says. “And then the user’s question might become, ‘Oh, okay, what’s
in South Carolina? Hmmm…What’s in South Carolina that’s not in North
Carolina?’ Then, ‘Why? Is there some correlation with habitat? It’s mostly
those on the coastal plain and in sandy areas that are in South Carolina
but not North Carolina. Hmmm…Are those also found farther south? Maybe
they’re southern species that come up from…’”

His voice trails off. It’s hard to say whether he’s more excited by
the possibilities of the technology, or by the ants themselves. Or maybe
it’s the idea of helping to save a little sliver of our world. One ant
at a time.