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I read this short fiction (novelette or novella) about 10-15 years ago, but it could be much older. I believe I read it in French, but I am not sure. Also not sure whether in a collection or in a smallish book by itself.

A scientist starts from the (actually true, I believe) fact that ants of a same ant-hill exchange volatile chemicals when they meet. Maybe the word "pheromone" is used in the book but maybe not. The information is transmitted from ant to ant to reach the ant-hill where a sentient hive-mind collects all these pieces of information.

He has an air analyser of inimaginable sensitivity. With this, after years of study of a particular ant-hill, he finally unravels its language. He decides to try and communicate with its hive-mind, and after some failed attempts (I think I remember his first "messengers" were killed by too high a concentration of chemicals) he manages.

I don't remember the content of these exchanges, more the pity.

But I do remember the end. While strolling in a forest, the scientist is attacked and killed by a whole nest of wasps (or maybe hornets). One thing I remember is that his friends and colleagues are surprised : the man was an expert in all hymenoptera, not just ants, and would certainly not have done anything to excite a whole nest of dangerous ones, neither willingly nor by accident. Either one of them finds the answer, or the the book is written as seen from an all-knowing narrator. But somehow the reader is told that after all this talking with ants, everything about the scientist, clothing, hair, skin, etc., was so saturated by ant chemicals (pheromones ?) that the wasps/hornets mistook him for a giant ant they had to kill.


EDIT

It seems that Werber never wrote a prequel to "Les Fourmis". But thinking about it there is no contradiction with the death of Edmond Wells before the beginning, even without flashbacks, and my memory of his research. As a good scientist, of course he took detailed notes of his experiments. Now those notes were probably in this famous basement. But either he kept a copy upstairs, or at some point someone went down in the basement and came back alive with Edmond Wells' lab notes. Notes that could be read by some character for the benefit of the reader of the book. So to anyone who has access to an electronic copy, can you confirm that there is a quote about reading a laboratory note left by the late Edmond Wells mentioning the death of the first "messengers" because the mixture of air and "pheromones" was too rich ? I am positive that I read this, and that it is not a false memory. If such a quote exists, I will accept the answer by Uqbarian, and admit that if I don't remember most of the details, it's just because my memory did not register them.

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This sounds a lot like the backstory of Bernard Werber's Les Fourmis ('The Ants', published in English as Empire of the Ants.

Les Fourmis is a novel with two strands: one strand follows an ant, the other strand follows the family of the deceased entomologist Edmond Wells. It turns out the entomologist had been working on a means of chemical communication with ants but was stung to death by wasps (this SFSite review mentions the researcher's death and has further details of the plot).

Edmond's death is described by the queen ant (Mother) as:

Mother remembered the end of the hu-man Ed-mond. It had happened during the first war against the dwarves. Edmond had wanted to help them and had left the underground room. But he had manipulated so many pheromones that he was completely drenched in them. Without knowing it, he passed in the forest for a russet ant of the Federation. When the wasps in the fir tree (with whom they were at war at the time) spotted his passport scents, they all pounced on him.

They killed him because they mistook him for a Belokanian. He must have died happy.

However, Les Fourmis may not be an actual match, as (from my memory of reading the book in the 90s) the reasons behind the researcher's death aren't made clear until the end of the book. It's possible that Werber also used this material in a short story elsewhere, as he has a couple of anthologies, but I haven't read any of those.

EDIT: I found my old copy of the book. Below is an extract from Wells's notes about his early attempts at communication. This also appears near the end of the book, a few pages before Mother's recollections quoted above.

EXTRACTS OF CONVERSATIONS: Extract of the first conversation with a Formica Rufa warrior.

HUMAN BEING: Are you receiving me?

ANT: crrrrrrrrr

HUMAN BEING: Are you receiving me?

ANT: crrrrrrrrrcrrrrrrrrrrrr. Help.

(N.B. Several adjustments were necessary. The signal was far too strong and was suffocating the ant. The microphone must be set at 1 and the receiver turned up to 10 to avoid the loss of a single molecule.)

Extract of the third conversation. (N.B. The vocabulary was increased to eighty words this time. The signal was too strong and again had to be turned down. It has to be set almost at zero.)

ANT: What?

HUMAN BEING: What did you say?

ANT: I can’t understand a thing. Help!

HUMAN BEING: Let’s talk more slowly.

ANT: Your emissions are too strong. My antennae are saturated. Help! I’m shut in.

HUMAN BEING: There, is that better?

ANT: No, can’t you talk properly?

HUMAN BEING: Er…

ANT: Who are you?

HUMAN BEING: I’m a big animal. My name’s ED-MOND. I’m a HU-MAN.

ANT: What did you say? I can’t understand a thing. Help! Help! I’m shut in!

(N.B. The ant died five seconds later. Were the signals still too toxic or did it die of fright?)

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  • what was wasps' motivation for this?
    – releseabe
    Nov 13, 2023 at 7:37
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    @releseabe In Werber's novel, the motivation is the same as in the question: the researcher was covered in ant pheromones, and because of that the wasps identified him as an enemy.
    – Uqbarian
    Nov 13, 2023 at 7:45
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    Very strange. The main character in my story is obviously Edmond Wells. But I remember him in his first efforts to communicate. The death of his first "messengers" because the concentration was too high. The last quote is exactly what I remembered. But most of the story in the link given above does not match. I'm going to look through all books published by Werber to check for some possible short story that could be a prequel.
    – Alfred
    Nov 13, 2023 at 9:02
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    *"...he has a couple of antologies", surely. Nov 13, 2023 at 19:05
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    @AndrasDeak--СлаваУкраїні I did not find any allusion to any other writings on ants besides the two other books of the trilogy, but it is very unlikely that the "death of the messengers" would be mentioned in later books of the trilogy.
    – Alfred
    Nov 13, 2023 at 19:23

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