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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

    Adrian,

    Harvester ants will scavenge dead insects as ell as collect seeds. They would probably take a dead cockroach, although they might not kill a live one.

    As for killing nearby growing plants, some types of harvester ants do clear the plants around their mounds or nests. The website Pogolumina has a section devoted to harvester ants and plants with a lot of good information.

  2. adrian

    Now that i just read the page you sent me to reply my question that if they kill nearby growing plants, I'm very confused what type of harvester ants are in backyard. Can you show me a page that shows how to see the difference between types of harvester ants in California.

  3. Roberta

    About the biting:

    Are you sure the worker ants are from the same colony? Workers from different colonies may fight.

    Does one pick the other up when they bite?

  4. Roberta

    Ants bite or sting to defend themselves or their nest. Since they are often hurt or killed in the process, it seems they probably don't enjoy it.

  5. Roberta

    Mrs Sheets,

    If ant's crop should be punctured, that ant could not store fluids. It is likely that it would survive for a time, because ants can live without food for at least a few days.

  6. Anthony

    Ok, I have a male Betta fish. He eat's insect's. So I mostly feed him BABY ant's that are usually around my bathroom near WATER. When Fall & Winter came they don't come out. So know I am forced to get full grown ant's. How could you pick an ant up without it biting you? I have sensitive ksin. If an ant bite's me I get huge bumps. Please reply.

    🙂

  7. Roberta

    Anthony,

    Truthfully, I don't pick up ants very often, and when I do I choose ants that I know don't bite or sting. There are ants out there that aren't as aggressive, maybe you should look around for a different kind.

    Note: some ants, like fire ants, might have toxins that could harm your fish. Another solution might be to feed it tiny crickets, which you can buy at the pet store. Or you can grow your own crickets, here's how: http://insected.arizona.edu/cricketrear.htm

  8. Rebecca

    We just got a colony of red harvesters and noticed one was carrying another up out of the tunnels so we thought it was dead. But when they got to the top, it turned out not to be dead and started moving again. It looked like the ant that had carried it was biting it or doing something on its back with her mouth and then she let it go. They are from the same colony. Any idea what she was doing?

  9. Roberta

    Hi Rebecca,

    Ants carry each other for a number of reasons, depending on what kind of ant it is. Some ants worker carry younger ants to help them learn the trails. It is possible that there was something wrong with the ant and the other ant was trying to clean it. Sometimes workers are "assigned" to be on the garbage detail. Does there seem to be a rubbish heap yet? is that ant hanging around the rubbish heap?

    If you keep watching your ants, I bet you will get some idea of what is happening.

  10. Roberta

    Fred,

    If you think about it, an ant farm is a pretty weird place for an ant to be. They don't have to do a lot of the things they would normally do in nature.

    That said, ants do rest, and probably even "sleep."

  11. larob

    Hi,
    Sure do love seeing all these wonderful questions concerning ants. I'm a Myrmecologist and I bet that most of you who read this knows what that is. A Myrmecologist is someone who studies ants! I have been studying them for quite some time now both in captivity (ant farms) and in the wild. And I would like to contribute an idea regarding why ants act so darn crazy when you blow on them? Even if you blow gently. Along with what's been said already about the feeling of possibly being eaten or in danger, I believe that ants suffer from another real danger that I haven't heard any body mention yet. That's the substance that our breath mostly consists of, Carbon Dioxide gas also known by the symbol CO2.
    You see, ants don't have lungs like you & I have. Instead, they have holes in their bodies to let the air in. And the fact that they spend so much time underground, well you can imagine that over millions of years they would certainly have to be super-sensitive to high levels of Carbon Dioxide gas to keep from dying of suffocation way down underground. Remember, accidents happen in the ant world too!

  12. Roberta

    The males and queens with wings do mate.

    Ants within the same colony pass food to one another, which might look like biting. Ants from different colonies will definitely bite each other. Sometimes they can have fights or battles.

  13. James

    Do ants know which direction they're going? In other words, if an ant trail goes across a leaf and you pick up the leaf and rotate it 180 degrees will the ants that were on the leaf start to head back the way they came? Or do they realize they're going the wrong direction now and turn around? Thanks for any insight.

  14. Roberta

    James,

    This is an excellent question. Part of the answer will depend on what kind of ants you are dealing with.

    Some kinds of desert ants have excellent vision and would be able to orient back to their nest via visual cues, such as the direction of the sun and landmarks. A few types of ants, such as certain army ants, are blind. Because the pheromone or scent they lay down for trails does not have a direction, they would likely be confused by moving the leaf.

  15. ali

    Hello, I am hoping that someone can help me with a question that is confusing me. How is it possible that the queen ant's unfertilized eggs can turn into male ants? I thought the only way to get a male gender was to use the sperm of another male??? Also, I thought that if any animal/insect is able to create offspring without fertilization (sexual or asexual) then the offspring would be clones of that animal/insect. I really hope someone can clear this up for me, feel free to email me at akashen@hotmail.com. thanks.

  16. Roberta

    Christina,

    The website Discover Life has maps of where different kinds of insects live. I first searched for Formicidae (the family for ants) and got this list: http://www.discoverlife.org/20/q?search=Formicidae

    I then clicked on Pogonomyrmex, a common kind of harvester ant (the kind you might get in an ant farm). This map http://www.discoverlife.org/mp/20q?search=Pogonomyrmex shows where they can be found. Looks like they are found in North and South America.

    In reality, there are many types of ants that gather seeds and are called harvester ants. If you are meaning any kind of harvester ant, then they can be found throughout the world, but usually in drier areas (deserts).

  17. Roberta

    If you mean that the ant farm already has worker ants in it, then no, you can't add a queen you find. By and large the workers will recognize the new queen is not "their" queen and try to kill her.

    Can you hold the queen in a separate container? Here is a simple nest: http://blog.wildaboutants.com/2011/05/15/test-tube-ant-nest/ Unless it is a well-designed ant farm, the test tube nest is probably better anyway.

  18. I'm Catherine

    Hi, I'm not actually replying. I don't know where the post thing is to ask a question so i'm just using this.
    Im doing a research report and here are some things my teacher would like me to add to it except I cant find anything about it. I hope people are still answeing questions because I'm seeing a lot of August 25th 2012s.

    Question: What is the Hymenoptera group and why are ants in it?
    Question: How do ants make their tunnels and how do the tunnels look like and how are they shaped?

    Thank you! (if you do answer)

  19. Roberta

    Catherine,

    For your first question: The order Hymenoptera contains the sawflies, ants, wasps and bees. Ants are in this order because they are closely-related to bees and wasps. Some ants have stingers like bees and wasps. Ants are also social like honey bees and some wasps, which means they live in large family groups.

    As for how the ants make tunnels, if they live underground the worker ants use their jaws (called mandibles) to remove pieces of dirt. They take the soil to the surface of the ground and discard it outside of the nest. Some ants also tunnel in wood. They use their mandibles to remove bits of wood.

    The tunnels are very cool and are different shapes depending on what kind of ant made them. Dr. Walter Tschinkel figured out you could see the shape of ant tunnels by filling them with plaster or melted metals and then digging them out of the ground after the metals hardened. You can see a picture of him standing next to one of the ant nest/tunnels that he dug out at Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_R._Tschinkel

    Hope this helps.

  20. Roberta

    Francy,

    Ants use their antennae to sense their environments, particularly for detecting smells (kind of like we use our noses). Many kinds of ants use their antennae to find their way home by following scent trails (although some use their eyes, as well). They also use their antennae to find food, to recognize nestmates, and to "talk" to other members of the nest. Some kinds of ants use their antennae to tap other ants and beg for food via trophallaxis (http://blog.wildaboutants.com/2010/07/03/ant-trophallaxis/).

    Without its antennae, an ant might not be able to do any of those things. It would not necessarily die right away, though. I often see ants that are missing body parts around the nest entrances, where they are first in line to fight off intruders. Damaged ants also work in the waste heaps.

  21. Trops

    Hi! I have an ant farm and I have recently found a queen ant crawling around my house, so I captured it and put it in my farm. Just wondering, I have not found any workers yet, just the queen. Can the queen dig holes? I have also noticed its abdomen is pretty bloated, does this mean that queen will spawn workers above the surface of the gel? I have read a lot of articles and I read that the queen can only lay her eggs inside the gel. Please help me with this, as I don't know of her abdomen will explode with all the eggs(if there is any)! Do I need to get the workers from the wild? Please reply ASAP AS I NEED SOMEONES HELP RIGHT AWAY OTHERWISE THIS FARM WILL BE BORING. Thanks!

  22. Trops

    Sorry, one last thing, do I have to get the ants from the exact same colony as my queen came from? I don't know where she came from, I don't even know where the carpenter ants in my house live! I heard that if I put in different colonies together, they will fight! I need more ants, because, as I said in my last comment, it will be boring! Please tell me if I have to get them from the wild, or any other solution without buying them online! Thanks!

  23. Roberta

    Trops,

    I think you know this, but the queen must lay eggs that will hatch into larvae, pupate and then become workers. That takes some time.

    One problem may be your ant farm. Unfortunately those gel farms were only designed to take some ants up into space for a few weeks. They really aren't meant to be good places for ants to live for a long time. It is possible your queen is simply not in the conditions she needs to lay eggs.

    Some people who have a lot of experience keeping ants have written this beginners guide to ant keeping that you might find helpful: http://beginnersant.pbworks.com/w/page/55542209/The%20Beginner%27s%20Guide%20to%20Ant%20Keeping

  24. Roberta

    Trops,

    Ants from different colonies do not mix well. If you take a queen from one colony and add workers from another, they are likely to fight and kill her. However, there is another way. If you add pupae from another colony, the newly emerged workers will accept the queen as their own.

    Here's a post about what pupae look like: http://blog.wildaboutants.com/2010/04/02/ant-eggs-versus-pupae/

    I would recommend trying to find pupae that are the same or a similar kind as your queen.

  25. Trops

    So you mean that I could take the pupae from the workers nest? Or I could take the pupae and queen from one colony and workers from another? Tell me which one is the best way, thnx!

  26. Trops

    I am kind of confused by what you mean, please clarify it! Thank you so much, your help has so far been greatly appreciated!

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