Skip to content

Kids’ Questions About Ants

In another world, I am the “Consult-Ant” on the Leaping from the Box website. I answer questions about ants and ant farms.

Recently, some fourth graders in Georgia had a lot of questions about the ant farm in their classroom. Here are their questions (some of which are quite entertaining) and my answers (which are not as entertaining :-)).

1. Why do they (the ants) make tunnels (in the ant farm)?

The ants make tunnels because they live underground and need a way to get from place to place. Ants use their tunnels to store food, as a place to raise young ants and they even have special areas they use as dumps or trash bins.

They live underground for many reasons. One is temperature. It is cooler underground in the summer and warmer in the winter. Another is that it is safer because enemies like birds can't get in and eat their babies.

2. Why do they eat their dead friends?

You have probably seen what looks like the ants are eating their dead friends because an ant farm isn't really at all like how ants live in nature. In nature, ants take their dead outside their nest and pile them in special areas. Sometimes they cut up the bodies to make them easier to carry outside.

Because they can't take the bodies outside in an ant farm, they probably just cut them up. That might have looked like they were eating them, but they most likely were trying to get rid of the bodies somehow.

Sometimes ants without a queen act strangely too. I'll write more about that below.

3. Why do they die fast?

What an important question. Normally, ant colonies have a special ant called a queen. She is the only ant to lay eggs, and she makes special substances that keep the worker ants healthy and happy.

In an ant farm, there are only worker ants. The companies that sell ant farms are not allowed to send queens through the mail.

Without the queen and their colony, the worker ants don't get the special substances and they die much more quickly than they probably would have if they stayed with their colony.

By the way, queens can live a long time. Some queens live 10, even 20 years.

4. How do they communicate with their antennas? and
5. Why do they communicate with their antennas?

Ants use their antennas partially like we use our noses, to smell things (they also use them for touch). When an ant meets another ant, it will touch it with its antennas to pick up any scents. The ant can tell if an ant is a member of its own colony from its smell. If the ant is a member of its colony, it will let it pass. If it is an ant from a different colony, it may try to chase it away or fight with it.

Sometimes when two ants from the same colony meet, one ant will smell that the other has eaten something good. It will ask that ant to share by tapping with its antenna. The ants will pass food to each other. The long name for this is "trophallaxis." It kind of looks like the ants are kissing.

Ants use their antennas for a lot of other things, like looking for food. When they find food, they sometimes lay a trail of scents, like perfume, back to their nest. Once they get there other ants can follow the trail with their antennas. In fact, if you look closely at an ant, you will see its antennas are not like other insects because they have a bend, like an elbow. That bend lets the ant hold its antennas down toward the ground where it can follow scents laid down by its sisters.

Ants do a lot of different things with their antennas. You might want to get a book out of the library to find out more.

6. Why do ants eat their own dead?

You classmate had a similar question. I told her that in nature ants take their dead out of the nest and pile them. Because they can't do that in an ant farm, they were trying to cut them up and get rid of the bodies.

Ants are very clean. They don't like to leave trash lying around. It makes sense, because the other ants could have died of a disease, or get moldy if they are just left around. That could spread disease to the living workers ants. The ants are just trying to clean up the dead bodies.

7. Why do they dig tunnels?

Ants dig their tunnels so they have a place to live. If they stayed on the top of the ground things like birds or lizards might eat them. Also, the temperature is better underground. It is not windy, away from the rain or snow, cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. I think I'd like to live there 🙂

8. Is there such a thing as a flying ant?

During certain times of the year the queen lays eggs that become new queens, which are queens with wings. Some of the eggs also become winged males. The two forms fly out together on a flight. After the flight, the male dies and the queens pull off their wings and start digging a tunnel.

It is cool to watch a queen ant take off her wings. They rub their back legs against them and actually pull the wings off.

9. Is there a king ant?

There are male ants, but they don't live very long. Both honey bees and ants have queens, but no kings. Termites do have males who hang out with the queen and are called kings.

10. When they bite do they have poison?

Okay, actually ants defend themselves in a lot of different ways. Some ants bite with their jaws, but they don't have poison in their jaws. Some ants sting, with a stinger that's at the other end of their body. Those stingers do have poisons, called venom.

And some ants can spray acids at their enemies, although that works a lot better for little enemies than big ones like us.

Fire ants are known to actually bite first, draw up a bit of skin with their jaws, and then put their stinger into the pulled up bit. That might be why people think they are biting. They are stinging too.

11. Why do they bite, do they just want your blood?


Ants are biting, stinging or spraying acids because you are really, really big to them and they think you are going to hurt them. They are just trying to keep you from crushing or killing them or destroying their home.

Now mosquitoes, they do want your blood.

12. Why do they like eating the dead ants?

I see several of your classmates all have similar questions, so you have been talking and thinking about this, I can tell. It's good that you have been wondering.

It turns out that the ants in the ant farm are doing something they normally wouldn't do if they were outside. In a regular nest when an ant dies, another ant picks it up and takes it outside. They like to keep their nests clean. If that dead ant is heavy, they might cut it up to make it easier to carry before they take it out.

In an ant farm they can't take the dead workers away, so they just cut them up as small as they can. It might look like they are eating them, but they aren't.

13. Why do they go crazy when people blow at them?

That's a very good observation. When the ants are underground, they are protected from wind. So if they feel an intense burst of air, it's probably either the breath of something really close that is coming to eat them, or the air being pushed by something jumping at them. In any case it would be a good idea to get ready to run and/or to defend themselves.

I would too.


14. How long do they live?

These are important questions that scientists have spent a great deal of time studying.

How long an ant lives depends on what kind of ant and also whether you have a worker or a queen. Most worker ants live about one year, but some have lived over three years. Most queens live over ten years. The oldest queen recorded so far was a harvester ant queen who lived to be 30 years old!

15. How big can they grow?

Again that depends on the kind, or species of ants. There are types of ants that live in the tropics that have workers one inch long. The biggest ants are the queen driver ants from Africa. They are over 5 cm long. Ask your teacher for a metric ruler to see how long that is.

16. Why do they live so little time?

Do you mean the ants that were in your ant farm didn't live very long? I'm sorry to hear that.

There are a few reasons ants in ant farms don't last long. One is that you don't know how old they were to begin with. The youngest ants stay deep within the nest, so when the people from the ant farm company come along and grab ants, they often grab the very oldest ants. If worker ants live a year, and yours were already nine months old, they only had a short time to live anyway.

The second reason is that ants don't thrive as well without their queen. The queen makes special substances that keep the other ants in the colony happy and healthy. Without the queen, ants just don't do so well. By the way, the companies can't send a queen through the mail by law. They can only sell workers.

Thanks for all your questions. Looks like you've really been thinking a lot about ants. That's what science is all about, thinking up questions. I am glad you find ants so interesting, because I do too!

Edit: If you are interested in books about ants for children, check this recent post.

117 thoughts on “Kids’ Questions About Ants

  1. Roberta

    Ants don't usually live for very long in an ant farm without a queen, maybe a month. It depends a little bit what kind of ants you have, what you feed them and stuff like that. But I wouldn't expect more than a few weeks in most cases.

    Do you have an ant farm?

  2. Mckailia

    Ok you know when your ants die and them they get put into the corners of the farm?

    Well why do they become moldy? Or what exactly is that growing on the dead ones?

  3. Roberta

    It probably is mold, if that's what it looks like. Molds and bacteria help recycle the discarded ant bodies, kind of like making compost.

    The mold spores are all around. Living ants clean themselves all the time to get rid of them. They even have glands that produce antibiotics, their own hand-sanitizers. But when the ant dies, the molds take over.

    One reason ants make waste heaps away from their nest is to help keep it clean from the molds and bacteria. Not many other insects do that, which is just one more reason ants are cool 🙂

  4. Roberta

    There are a lot ants working at once, so it may look like they work extra hard. Ants have a number of important tasks, like taking care of the queen and young, building the nest, gathering food for all the ants, and keeping everything clean.

    Ants do rest, though. Scientists who study what ants do all day found worker fire ants may take up to 250 short naps per day, each about a minute long. That's about 4 hours of sleep per day. At other times of the year, ants may rest for longer periods.

  5. Roberta

    There isn't one answer to that question because different kinds of ants do different things. Ants in forests, like wood ants, may live in the same place for years. They build a large mound, which gets larger and larger. Other ants may move once a month. Army ants in South and Central America are constantly on the move. They never build a permanent nest.

    Sometimes changes in the environment may make them move. For example, if there is a flood, the ants may have to move all the nest very quickly.

    Ants move more often than we realize.

  6. Ellen

    Hi, I am doing a science project for the science fair, and need to have a bunch of websites (not wikipedia) that talk a lot about ants. I am doing my background research paper on ant tunnels, and need a lot of info.
    Thanks, this site helped me a lot!

  7. Roberta

    Hi Ellen,

    Good luck on your project and let me know if I can help answer any questions.

  8. Jess

    Hi I'm doing a project on ants at school and I would like to know the method or process an ant follows to make its home?

  9. Roberta

    Jess,

    A new ant colony often starts out with a queen ant digging a hole in the soil, hiding under a stone, or crawling under some loose bark on a log. She lays some eggs, and raises new worker ants. These workers take over the building duties. Worker ants will continue to construct tunnels and chambers for all the ants to live in as the colony gets bigger.

    How the workers dig depends on what they are living inside. The workers in the soil may kick dirt with their legs, or pick up clumps and move it with their jaws (called mandibles). Some kinds of ants. called harvester ants, also have a special baskets of hairs under their heads that they use to move dirt (click on the tag "harvester" ant to see more about this). Ants that nest in wood tear off strips with their mandibles and carry the pieces outside. Ants may also live inside hollow objects, such as inside an acorn.

    I hope that helps. Let me know if you have more questions.

  10. diamone

    hi ,um i have been trying to make a homemade ant farm so i got these ants i found in my backyard they are small and stuff ,so some of them had eggs ,so how long will the eggs last ???and i was wondering were can i find a queen ant??? and will another queen ant care for another colony ??? thanks for ur help 🙂

  11. Roberta

    Hi,

    I am glad to hear you are interested in ants.

    Okay, the first thing to find out is whether your ants have eggs or pupae. Check the link to help you figure out eggs or pupae. If they are pupae, then the other ants will take care of them. If they are eggs, the other ants may take care of them, but probably not.

    Adding an unknown queen to a group of workers won't work. They will fight. Your best bet is to take care of the workers you have, and try to learn as much as you can. Then look for a queen to start another ant farm. When and where to look for queens kind of depends on where you live. In New England, I used to find a lot of carpenter ant queens in May. Here in Arizona, they show up in July. Where to find queens might help a little bit. Check the comments, too.

  12. Shea

    How big are the queen ants and how would you spot them if you dig up a colony?
    Also will they attack Stick insects I have 3 of the stick insects as pets.

  13. Roberta

    That's a good question. And the answer is that it depends.

    One thing that can change how fast ants tunnel is the temperature. If it is cold outside, say around freezing, ants can hardly move. It might take days to tunnel just a little ways. If it is hot, ants can move much more quickly.

    How much tunneling they can do also depends on how many ants are working. In a new colony with only a few workers, the workers must do all the tasks and might only tunnel a little bit. If a large colony has a lot of workers, they may be able to develop a large tunnel system in just weeks.

    Sorry it took me a little while to get back to you, I've been out of town. Let me know if you have more questions.

  14. Roberta

    Shea,

    Sorry it has taken me a little while to post your comments. I have been out of town.

    Very cool that you have stick insects as pets. If you try to keep them together, the hungry ants just might try to eat the stick insects. But ants can be a friend to stick insects. Some kinds of ants find and bring stick insect eggs into their nests so they are protected until the baby stick insects hatch out and crawl away.

    As for queen ants, they come in a lot of different sizes. Your best bet might be to find out what kinds of ants might be found where you live and try to get pictures of the queens. They tend to be wider that regular ants and they have marks on their mid-section (called a trunk) where the wings were once attached. I have some photographs of queens in this blog, so you might want to type queens in the search box.

    Good luck.

  15. Roberta

    Shea,

    Sounds like you have quite a diversity of ants.

    I am working on a post about how to tell if you have a queen ant, with photographs. As soon as I publish it I'll leave a link here.

  16. Shea

    If you have heard of an Ant-O-Sphere(eight pods) I'm trying to make a colony in there but so far the bulldog ants are to big and the Argentine are to small.
    I don't know what other ants i can find in Australia(where I live) Victoria Mornington.
    I'm thinking of asking the brairs there if i can dig up one of there ant nests i think their gonna say no.
    That means i have no where elese to look ;-(
    I wonder is there an ant shop in Victoria?

  17. Roberta

    Demi,

    You know, I think about that a lot. It is easy to assume that ants are nothing like us because they look so different. They are small and have their skeletons on the outside, they have weird appendages and they can squirt chemicals.

    When you find out that ants do things like chirp to one another, sleep, grow gardens and herd aphids, you have to start to wonder how different they really are. They have some of the same problems we do, like finding food and keeping safe.

    Perhaps it pays to keep an open mind, or at least accept that there are both similarities and differences.

  18. Roberta

    Shea,

    Queen ants come in a lot of different sizes, depending what kind they are.

    I hope you don't mind, but I'm going to write a post about what kinds of ants you might be able to find and ask for readers help with suggestions for you. Hopefully they will have some good ideas for you. I will leave the link here when I finish later today.

  19. lara

    Hi
    this info realy helped me but i have got a ant-o-sphere 4 parts and i have about 10 ants i was told not to get a queen ant could you tell me why?

    thankyou

  20. Roberta

    Lara,

    It might not be so much that you shouldn't get a queen ant, but that the ants you have now won't like a new queen. If you got a new queen, you would have to put her by herself or the workers might try to hurt her.

    Or are you referring to the fact that the suppliers for ant farms are not allowed to send you queens? They can't send queens through the mail...

  21. Emily

    Hi, I just bought a new ant farm, it is those ones with the blue gel instead of sand. I saw that when building tunnels, the ants would take extra pieces of gel and bring it to the surface. They seemed to set the gel in piles, and I even saw some ants moving pieces of gel from one side to another even though they look the same. I was wondering: Do ants sort their trash In separate/certain piles?
    -Emily
    P.s. I love the website! It is very helpful!

  22. Roberta

    Emily,

    Congratulations on your ant farm.

    Your observations are correct, ants do pile their trash in specific ways. Ant scientists (myrmecologists) often call the piles "middens." You can tell what a colony has been gathering for food and how healthy they are by studying the middens.

    It is possible that some of the pieces are beginning to mold or have bacterial decay that you can't detect by looking at it yet. Keep an eye out for discoloration.

    In the gel ant farm the ants may also move the trash around from side to side because they can't get it far enough away to suit their sense of cleanliness. If they had more room, they might take it farther away and just leave it.

    Happy ant watching 🙂

  23. Emily

    Hi again! I have been studying my ant farm a lot lately ever since I had learned more about them. Also, my classrooms ant farm got attacked by local black ants. Our ant farm had 14 harvester ants left. We were able to save them, however, there are many dead black ants still in the ant farm. also, much of the gel is gone. My teacher thinks the black ants just came for the gel that serves as food and water for the ants. we have been observeing the surviving ants in the ant farm for two days now. Most of the ants stay at the surface and aren't creating new tunnels. What do you think will happen to our farm? Will the ants be able to survive?
    -Emily
    P.s. My ant farm is doing great though, it has been three days but the ants have created more than 15 tunnels that are all linked together. 🙂

  24. Roberta

    Sounds like the harvester ants are going to have a tough time of it. Without a queen, they probably won't last long.

    How did the black ants get into the farm? How big were they?

  25. Emily

    The black ants were "argentine ants" and are about 1/4 of an inch. These ants are aggressive and swarm by the millions in my school. Other teachers at my school even have stories about these ants attacking school pets like lizards and even guinea pigs. 🙁 My teacher wasn't there to see how they got into the farm, but with millions of ants helping together, it wasn't really a surprise to think they could have pulled up the lid till there was a crack big enough to crawl through. Like I said, my teacher was able to save most of the harvester ants but now their farm is scattered with dead argentine ants and they have stopped tunneling. Is there something we could do to make them start tunneling again? And if you were to put the same species of ants but from different ant farms together (neither having a queen) would they fight each other or work together?

  26. Roberta

    Ah yes, those Argentine ants are very pesky. Most likely the lid was a little loose when it was replaced last time.

    Ants from different ant farms would be likely to fight, so I don't recommend trying that.

    As I said, the gel habitats were really only designed to be a short term home during a space flight. They are not meant to house ants for more than a few weeks or so. I would try putting the ants in another container, clean the Argentine ants out as best you can and try to smooth out the gel surface, even if it means taking out some of the gel. That might help.

    Otherwise, a test tube nest is always a good choice. http://blog.wildaboutants.com/2011/05/15/test-tube-ant-nest/ You won't see tunnels, but the ants will live longer.

  27. Roberta

    Nicholas,

    The best way to get a queen ant for your ant farm is to find one when ants are swarming in your area.

    There's some information on where to find queens at this link:
    http://www.leapingfromthebox.com/art/rlg/antfarmquestions.html

    Here's how to tell if an ant is a queen:
    http://blog.wildaboutants.com/2011/07/24/what-does-a-queen-ant-look-like/

    Here's another link how to identify if you have a queen:
    http://myrmecos.wordpress.com/2008/09/27/how-to-identify-queen-ants/

    Good luck!

  28. catalina

    Hello 🙂
    i was just wondering what exactly do the nursery ants do to take care of the young? do they just watch them or do they actually feed them and clean them? im a mom of soon to be two and was watching the cat in the hat with my son and they did there show about ants.. when they got to the baby ants i wanted to know more lol Ty

  29. Roberta

    The nursery ants have to take care of the larvae, because the larvae don't have legs and can't move much. The workers feed the larvae, lick their surface to keep them clean and fungus-free, move them around to places in the nest with the ideal temperature for best growth, and protect them if enemies invade the nest.

    Those Cat in the Hat shows are actually very well done. I'm glad they inspired you to find out more.

  30. adrian

    Hi I have red harvester ants and sometimes it looks like they are biting each other even though they are both alive.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *