When I was around 9, I spent countless hours after school watching two colonies of ants on my sidewalk. They marched in meandering lines along the sidewalk, collecting food and carrying it back to the entrance holes to their nests.
When two ants met, they tapped each other all over with their little antennae before passing by. Eventually, two ants from the different colonies would meet, and a battle would start, sometimes escalating into a war. It was like watching an epic movie on a tiny scale.
Kids are naturally fascinated by ants, just like I was. Let’s explore some ways to use that fascination to foster a love of nature.
A little bit about ants
There are more than 12,000 species of ants in the world, and here in Washington, we have many different kinds. Though they can be a pest in the house, most ants help our environment by controlling other insects, aerating the soil, and turning dead animals and plants into rich soil.
Ants are social insects, and they live in large groups called colonies. Colonies have queen ants, which can live many years and lay millions of eggs. These eggs hatch into female worker ants, which gather food, protect the colony and attack enemy colonies. Other eggs become male ants, which mate with the queen and then die soon after. When the queen dies, the colony dies unless they have raised a replacement queen.
Ants don’t have ears, but instead they hear by feeling vibrations through the ground. They also don’t have lungs, but instead absorb oxygen through tiny holes all over their body.
Ants rely on scented chemicals called pheromones to communicate with each other. They sense pheromones using the tips of their antennae. Depending on the pheromone, the ants know whether they’re dealing with an enemy ant or member of their family, where to go to find food, whether to attack or defend their colony, whether and where to relocate the colony, or whether it’s time to start raising new queens and male ants.
Kids can connect with ants in a variety of ways. Just finding an ant and then following it around as it goes about its business can lead to a wealth of discoveries. Try having the kids keep a notebook with observations on what the ant does, or draw a map of where it goes. Can they find any patterns?
If you’re out on the trail and find a mound on the ground that seems a little out of place, take a look and see if you can find thatching ants. These mounds are their nests, and the ants build them out of plant materials, like grass, leaves, pine and fir needles, and soil. The mounds are usually less than a couple feet tall, but they can be up to 6-feet tall!
Have kids try to experience the world as an ant. Sit on the ground with your hands touching the dirt and eyes closed. Can they feel sound vibrations — maybe of passing cars or trains, or people walking by — through the ground? Or explore navigating the world through the sense of smell. Hide something with a strong smell — coffee, a squeezed orange peel, a cotton ball with vanilla, crushed herbs — in a room, and see if the kids can find it with just their sense of smell.
Finally, what’s the heaviest thing your child can pick up (safely, using proper lifting technique)? Is it some heavy books, a big rock or a table? An ant can pick up something that weighs 20 times heavier than itself. It has to in order to bring food home to its colony. If the average second grader could do the same, she would be able to pick up a car!
Hillary Clark, membership and education coordinator for the Chelan-Douglas Land Trust, writes this monthly column on low-cost and easy ways for families to spend quality time outside with their kids. For more ways to get outside with your children, visit cdlandtrust.org/outings-events/events.