Fantastic Ants - Ant Watching and Ant Farms
What animals can sew? How about garden and herd other animals? What animals plant wildflowers? Or dig up fossils? If you think the answer is “only people”, then you are wrong. Ants can do all those things too. Weaver ants in Africa use their own young (larvae) as spindles of thread to sew leaves together for nests. Leafcutter ants use the leaves they cut from plants to grow underground fungus gardens. Many types of ants take care of “herds” of aphids, even taking a few under ground in the winter and returning them to plants in the spring. A few species of ants herd caterpillars, taking them into their nest each night and leading them back up into nearby trees in the morning. Ants are responsible for planting many wildflowers in New England and other areas. The wildflower seeds have special structures on them that serve as ant food. The ants peel off the structure and throw the remaining, still viable seed into their refuge heap, “planting” it for the next season. Finally, fossil hunters know to look for harvester ant mounds because the ants often dig up and discard tiny fossils.
Since ants do all those things, it’s not surprising that people love to watch ants in action. Just look at the number of websites devoted to “ant cams”, live pictures of ant farms (for example, reference 1 and reference 2). Ants may be interesting to us because they are so different from people, yet do so many similar things. Or it could be that something is always going on. Watching a caterpillar is interesting for a little while if it is feeding, but that’s about all it does. A colony of ants is generally a jumble of activity.
I can hear some of you now, “But I hate having those things in my house or yard. They sting or get into my food or even worse, eat my house.” Yes, ants can do those things. It seems like my house is always invaded by hundreds of ants whenever company comes from out of town, usually my mother-in-law. Typically ants come indoors to look for food when there is not much going on outside, such as in the early spring when it’s cold out or when it has been raining a lot (an exception are the Pharaoh’s ants that do specialize in being indoor ants.) Then the ants go back outside once the weather has cleared up. In fact, I think that’s why there are so many wacky home remedies for ants, because people spread this or that home remedy around and the ants disappear. No matter what you did, they were going to disappear anyway.
Some stinging ants can be a health risk, such as the imported fire ants found in many Southern states. Did you know though, that many other species don’t have stingers and are shy, gentle creatures? You ask, “What about the carpenter ants that eat my house?” Well, first of all carpenter ants don’t eat wood, only termites can do that. The carpenter ants simply build a nest, usually in areas where the moisture level is high such as where there is a leak or a condensation problem. My old advisor used to say “Every home over 25 years old (in our region of Upstate New York) has carpenter ants. None has ever fallen down.”
If I’ve convinced you that maybe ants aren’t all bad, then maybe you should consider introducing your family to an ant farm. Having your own ant farm can be a rewarding learning experience. Your children can observe worker ants building tunnels, caring for eggs, larvae and pupae, finding food, and grooming each other. Children can also learn animal husbandry skills while caring for creatures so different from us. And they can perform simple experiments to see what ants eat, or whether ants can see colors.
There are many approaches to ant farming. The simplest is to purchase a commercial ant farm. Many designs are available in a range of prices, from either catalogs (for example, reference 3 and reference 4) or your local pet, hobby or toy stores. In the kit will be a certificate that you send in to get the live ants to put into the farm.
The advantage of a commercial farm is that it is a tightly sealed environment, so ants won’t escape. Also, you don’t have to dig or look for ants, they are shipped to you. The disadvantages are that you will be sent only worker ants; law does not allow the companies to ship queen ants. Why is that a problem? In ant societies, the queen is the only one who can lay eggs that will become more worker ants, or more queen ants. Her presence actually makes the workers live longer and keep working as a unit. If you fill your farm with only workers, they may build tunnels but won’t live long (a few months).
The second easiest ant farm is simply a large glass jar filled with dirt (reference 5) (for complete instructions, see below.) Just find some ants living in soil, dig them up, and dump them in. The advantages are that it is an easy and inexpensive way to keep ants, and it works. The disadvantages are that you must find ants to put into the jar, and the ants may escape while you are changing food or watering. You can alleviate this problem by placing the jar in a shallow pan of water to serve as a moat. Chances are good that the queen escaped, so as with the commercial ant farm the ants will not last more than a few months.
Another option is the plaster nest (reference 6). Plaster is poured into and shaped in various-sized containers or terrariums. Simply add ants and keep the plaster moist. In plaster nests no soil is added, so the ants won’t tunnel. If you are lucky enough to find a queen ant, she will do well in this type of nest. The advantages are that more nests can be added as the colony grows and that plaster nests can be adapted to a variety of needs (such as an ant cam). The disadvantage is that the ants are likely to climb out of terrariums, so you will need to coat the top insides with petroleum jelly or mineral oil.
Scientists rear ants in test tubes (reference 7). Fill a glass test tube about 1/3 full of water and push cotton half way into the water. This provides a chamber for the ants to live in. You can place the tubes in plastic shoeboxes or attach to other tubes via rubber stoppers and glass tubing. Cover the tubes or box with black paper. The tubes can be added on as needed and feeding areas can be added. This system isn’t too expensive and doesn’t have to be watered.
Regardless of the type of home you choose, you will need to provide food. The ant farms should come with instructions depending on the type of ant they send. In homemade units, feed the ants a cotton ball or paper towel soaked in water with sugar or honey dissolved in it, dry cat food, tuna, pieces of dead insects such as crickets, and small pieces of fruit. You will find some ant species prefer sweet foods while others prefer protein-based foods. Their food preferences may change from one season to another, as well.
If you would like to find a queen, try looking for new queens after their mating flight swarms. The new queen ants will be larger and thicker than regular workers and will have wings at first. If you find a large, single ant running on the ground after a spring or summer thundershower, chances are good she’s a queen. She will act differently than a foraging worker, more likely to try to hide at your approach. Ants looking for food will tend to carry on and ignore intruders. Check reference books for more details.
For a simple ant farm in a jar:
Obtain a large glass jar with straight sides, such as a pickle or peanut butter jar. Make sure the mouth of the jar is large enough to fit a soda pop can inside (Note: or use a smaller jar and fit a smaller tin can inside). Fill the soda can with sand and cover the opening with heavy-duty tape (or use an unopened can). Put the can in the jar. Set the jar in a shallow pan of water to serve as a moat. Find some ants in the ground and dig them up. Chose ants that don’t sting, such as wood ants. Fill the space around the can with dirt and ants. Don’t pack them in too tight just to the top of the soda can. (The can forces the ants to tunnel near the glass where you can see them.) Place a wet sponge on top and keep it moist. Replace the sponge if it gets too moldy. Cover the jar with a piece of cloth large enough to fully cover the opening and secure with a rubber band. Tape dark construction paper over the outside of the jar, so the ants will be encouraged to tunnel against the sides. Pull the paper back to check periodically for action. This kind of jar also works as a viewing jar for earthworms (reference 5).
End the day by reading Two Bad Ants and singing a rousing rendition of The Ants Go Marching. I’m sure you and your family will soon be watching ants instead of TV!
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