What we learn by watching harvester ants.

Gnome holds her cheap plastic ant after giving it a kiss.

It’s all about insects lately. Each night, the insect for the next day is introduced in the form of a cheap, plastic replica. Little B. bounces around the room, begging for her insect before bed. There’s just something cool about girls who like bugs.

And there’s just something spring-feverish about the moment when you find yourself forking out $10 for an ant farm on a mysterious whim. An art farm without any ants, mind you.

All week, the little people waited for the daily mail, wondering if our harvester ants might be among the bills and junk. When our tube full of harvester ants finally arrived, a dance party and jubilee ensued. The king tried to hide his own excitement with a serious question about the possibility of ants fleeing the farm for other locations in the castle. Alas, the time for serious questions was long past. I did my best to put his reservations to rest.

It should be called an ant aquarium.

Preparing the ant farm required us to add the sand and water to the bottom portion. The Eldest pushed the paper plug into the bottom portion of the farm so the ants could get down into the sand and tote it into the upper portion, presumably to build the “hills” to which the Eldest kept referring.

Transferring the ants to their farm was not as easy as we’d anticipated. Tired of life in the tube, the ants were stir-crazy, climbing out the sides as I tried to slide them into the narrow slat at the top of the ant farm. Fortunately, the Eldest read the instructions and advised me to put the ants in the fridge for 15 minutes- “it calms them down”, he explained.

After 15 minutes of cold air, the ants seemed sluggish. The Eldest helped me transfer to their new farm. In the hubbub, a couple of ants escaped and found sanctuary in the exposed air vents on the floor. No worries, assured the Eldest, since they are all of the same sex. The rest went without saying.

With (most of the) ants safely inside the farm, all that remained was to set about observing our friends get adjust to post-tube life. Sit, watch, jot down a few notes- I could feel my patience muscles growing with each passing minute.

Part of the responsibilities of ant farming include a daily feeding schedule, which the Eldest has managed very well thus far.

We decided to agree on a question about the ants- one for each day to frame our thoughts and explorations. Our ant friends were very reluctant to explore the southern route into the sand. We watched and waited to see what might transpire. Our first question grew quite naturally from the soil (or sand) of that watching and waiting.

“They’re fighting over who has to go first,” cried Prophet, the one who always wants to “go first”. How do ants decide who will go first? As in most complicated social systems, ants are highly specialized to their particular roles and tasks.

Enter the ant lapbook- and a Types of Ants minibook I made for just this occasion. The Eldest noticed that we didn’t have any queens (he also said something about it being “illegal” to ship ant queens around the US of A).

Types of ants minibook (PDF)

The Eldest reassured us that the ants would work hard during the night- and we might even wake to find a tunnel or two. He was right.

I can’t wait to see what tommorrow will bring in the ant farm arena. In the meantime, I overheard Prophet conversing with a friend. “What have you been doing?” her friend asked.

“Oh, ballet…. and I’m an ant farmer now,” Prophet confided, adding, “It’s really hard work.”

“Why? What do you have to do that’s so hard?” asked her friend.

“I have to watch the ants,” replied Prophet. “I have to watch them A LOT…..”