I’ve spent the last few hours trying to understand the motivation of ants.
The industrious little things just never stop, do they? Running along the pheromone path created by the Explorer Ants, picking up little pieces of dirt or sand (although I wonder whether can you call a chunk of earth bigger than the ant’s own head “little”?), and then racing back the other way to drop it in the trash heap. It’s a miracle of nature, the way they can colonise an area, taking it over and making it their own in such a short time.
Did you know that ants do housework? They’re very clean little things, washing their own faces and “hands” in water, and piling up unnecessary dirt and grit, along with discarded larvae shells and dead ants, in trash heaps located outside the main areas of their nest. Amazing, right?
But I wonder what it means when they to create their trash heap in the middle of the Ant Pudding that I
grudgingly lovingly cooked for them? Is it the wrong kind of food? Don’t they like it? Do they even know it’s supposed to be food? Should I cook them something else?
Are they just fussy, high-maintenance ants?
Because that’s what I need in my chaotic household, an ant farm full of fussy, high-maintenance ants.
When we bought Big Brother an ant farm for Christmas, we thought we were doing the right thing. Okay, I thought I was doing the right thing. (My husband quickly disavowed knowledge of the decision-making process.) It’s science! It’s something we can do together! It’s a pet that doesn’t need to be trained or walked or brushed! And, above all else, I’ve always wanted one and I was never allowed to have one as a child.
Now I know why.
Big Brother and I set up the ant farm in January.
I We excitedly opened the box and looked through the instructions. It looked simple enough. Put together the two sides of the farm, add layers of different coloured dirt/sand to the bottom, and then add ants. How hard could it be?
The “putting it together” bit? Not hard at all.
Then we got to the part where we needed to add ants.
Now, before I explain how we spent the next six (yes, six!) hours, let me show you the ant-catching instructions:
Just to clarify, the instructions do, in fact, say that to catch ants you:
- Move stones/logs looking for ants.
- Use a spoon to scoop ants into a plastic jar.
Let me explain what really happens:
- Move stones/logs looking for ants.
- Find nothing.
- Move more stones/logs looking for ants.
- Find more nothing.
- Spend hours scouring the backyard, complaining loudly that there were plenty of ants around yesterday, and where could they have all gone, and this is stupid anyway.
- Find some ants.
- Attempt to scoop some up with a spoon.
- Shriek like a girl as ants swarm along the spoon, up the handle, and on to your hand.
- Shake your hand repeatedly, drop the spoon, and dance around in a circle.
- Calm down, take some deep breaths, pick up the spoon, and realise that the ants have all disappeared.
- Return to step 1.
You can imagine my jubilation when six (yes, six!) hours later, we had a plastic jar swarming with about twenty tiny ants. Then began the process of “encouraging” them to climb along a plastic tube from their “safe” little jar into an unknown and terrifying ant farm.
I don’t know how long that took. We were all over it by then, and left them to their own devices. After another eight hours, with the boys in bed, I went back and checked that the ants had all made the treacherous journey towards food, water, and the idyllic prison of an ant farm. They hadn’t. I may have, at this point, lost my temper just a little bit and tipped the damn ants from the jar into the ant farm.
Anyway, I was quite proud of
myself our efforts and eager to show my husband the completed ant farm when he got home from work. He took one look at it and said:
“They’re very small. Bigger ants would have been better.”
I won’t bother relating the rest of the conversation. I’ll leave that to your imagination. Moving on. When I looked into the ant farm the following morning (with an excited Big Brother in tow), I was thrilled to see that the ants were starting to dig tunnels.
Teeny, tiny tunnels.
Those ants really were very, very small.
I really didn’t want to start over again (or tell my husband he was right), so we decided to just make do with little ants and see what happened. For days we watched them, digging away in the dirt. And then… nothing. No movement. No sign of further tunnelling. No sign of the ants at all.
I fretted. I paced. I worried. I had no idea what had happened.
“Don’t worry,” I said finally. “We’ll just get more ants!”
So we did. We started the whole process again. We cleaned out the ant farm, put it back together, and went ant hunting.
This time we were more practiced. It only took us four (yes, four!) hours to catch them. And these ones were bigger. Almost twice the size, at about 6mm long. Relative giants, compared to our first attempt.
We set them up and they… sat there.
Just sat there. Above ground. On a twig-bridge in the top section of the farm. They didn’t explore. They didn’t eat. And they certainly didn’t dig tunnels.
The next day I did a quick ant-count and realised some of them were missing. I’d specifically put 25 ants in the farm, but now I could only see 16. Where did the other 9 go? There was still no sign of tunnels, so where could they be? I didn’t have time to solve the Mystery of the Missing Ants right at that moment. I had to get breakfast for the kids. But an hour later, I was back in front of the ant farm.
I saw an ant running as though his life depended on it.
Not in the ant farm, which is what you’d expect, but on the table in front of the ant farm. It was practically waving a flag and shouting, “Freedom!”
How the heck had it escaped?
I peered into the ant farm. There was an ant escaping through the air holes.
Throught the damn air holes!
Seriously, these air holes are only about 1mm in diameter, but the ant was pushing and twisting and turning and sucking its stomach in as far as it could. And then it was out.
Well, the question of what happened to the first lot of ants was answered.
But how was I going to stop these ants from escaping?
In a fit of pique, I grabbed some sticky tape and stuck it across the air holes. Then I had a thought.How are the ants going to breathe?
I found a pin and poked tiny holes in the sticky tape, making sure air could get in but ants couldn’t get out. Then I went to catch some more ants.
I will spare you the image of little ants struggling to climb out of air holes and finding their heads stuck to the sticky side of the tape, and being unable to get away, and dying a probably horrible death with their faces pressed so close to freedom they could literally smell it, and their bodies squished into holes so small they couldn’t wriggle free.
I will spare you that image, because it still haunts my dreams.
Needless to say, the ant farm was soon packed away in its box, never to see the light of day again. Until yesterday.
Big Brother brought the box to me and said, “Can we please set up my ant farm? I really miss those ants.” And, in a moment of sheer mindlessness, I forgot everything that had come before and I channelled the spirit of a Good Sciencey Mother and said, “Of course!”
And so today I found myself spending hours trying to understand the motivation of ants. These ones are bigger — big, black things at least a centimetre long — and can’t possibly escape through air holes, taped or not. They’ve been digging tunnels since the moment I put them into the nest. They’re easy to see and interesting to watch.
But what does it mean when they start piling dirt and stones on top of the food I cooked for them?
Should I have made them Ant Cake (for herbivores) instead of Ant Pudding (for omnivores and carnivores)? How can you tell if they’re herbivores or carnivores, anyway? Are they covering up the food to keep it for later? Or are they just fussy, high-maintenance ants?