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Nature Lesson: Observing Ants

Nature Lesson: Observing Ants

When you live in the city you take any nature you can get. I may not be able to walk out the front door to take my kids on a nature walk through the woods, but we can go out on the sidewalk and look at ants. And you’d be surprised how much fun that can be. In the book I Love Dirt (Trumpeter, 2008), author Jennifer Ward dishes the dirt on ants, here’s her advice on how to have a nature lesson whether you walking down the city sidewalk or enjoying a rural picnic.

Probably one of the easiest insects to watch in action is the ant, and what antics they perform as they go about their very busy workdays. Ants can be found in practically any outdoor environment–from sidewalks to playgrounds, from a small patch of grass to a large field.

Scientists who study bugs are called entomologists. A true bug is an animal that has a mouth part that can pierce and suck, like a mosquito or a ladybug. Ants are not true bugs, even though they have mouths and are in constant search for food. They are part of the insect family. Insects have three main body parts: A head, a thorax, and an abdomen. Insects also have six legs.

Take your budding entomologist outside and locate an anthill. (Warning: All ants can bite, ans their bites can hurt! Do not hold or handle ants of any size.) Spend time watching them in action. Follow their trail and see where it leads you.

Ants follow a trail because they are searching for food. When one ant finds food, it leaves a scent trail for the other ants in the colony to follow, telling them where they can find the food supply. When you see ants following a trail, it means they are off to get provisions for the colony.

Try this fun experiment to watch how ants communicate with one another by leaving a scent trail. Collect several small twigs and place them them end to end to create an enclosed space not too far from an anthill. Don’t create a high enclosure; make it flat and wide. Drop some sugar or cracker crumbs within the enclosed space.

Wait for the ants to discover your gift. Soon they will find the food you’ve left for them, and as they take it away, they will leave a scent trail so they can return for more. Other ants in the colony will quickly catch the trail’s scent and follow it to the food source too. Once you have a trail of ants in pursuit of the food, carefully remove the sticks. Observe what happens: The ants become confused because their scent trail has been removed.

Question: How do ants smell? Do they have noses?
Answer: Ants use their antennae–the two long, thin body parts on their heads–to smell with.

When you’re done watching ants, your kids might like learning how to feed butterflies!

Read more: Family, Nature, Nature & Wildlife, Outdoor Activities, , , , , ,

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Melissa Breyer

Melissa Breyer is a writer and editor with a background in sustainable living, specializing in food, science and design. She is the co-author of True Food (National Geographic) and has edited and written for regional and international books and periodicals, including The New York Times Magazine. Melissa lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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43 comments

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10:26AM PDT on Aug 3, 2011

great article, thank you :)

3:17AM PDT on Jul 12, 2011

Thanks for sharing this information

8:37PM PDT on Jul 9, 2011

Noted with thanks.

7:01AM PDT on Jun 30, 2011

thank you

9:55PM PDT on Jun 29, 2011

good read...

12:40PM PDT on Jun 29, 2011

Nice idea, but a little lacking on facts. Mosquitoes are not true bugs either.

9:52AM PDT on Jun 29, 2011

A GOOD READ

6:11AM PDT on Jun 29, 2011

thanks

5:00AM PDT on Jun 29, 2011

Excellent artice Melissa. Children love to watch insects. I gave my granddaughter a little see-though dome and she went out into the bush and collected some insects. Put some food in with them and bought them home to study for a day and then, carefully put hem back where they came from. It is not a good idea to keep butterflies in an insect dome, as they only live such a short time that they ought to be allowed to stay free, to enjoy themselves and to lay eggs.
I had one little girl at my house who was scared when she saw some ants coming in though a crack under the window. I showed her how to put a little bit of food down for them and watch them all circling round to eat it and in no time, she was bonding with them! You can stop ants from coming in and getting into your cubboards and all over the house by finding out where they are coming in and then, leaving them a little tiny bit of food in a jar lid there and they will eat it and when they have finished, they will go home without coming any further into the house. Much nicer than using Ant Rid!

6:25PM PDT on Jun 28, 2011

I was fascinated by ants when I was a small child. I would feed them bread crumbs or sugar granules and watch the ants carry the food back to the mound. These were the harmless little black ants in Maryland. In my 20's, I was thrilled to see leaf cutter ants in Costa Rica. Now I live in Florida, and I have had enough of the vicious fire ants! And guess what? I work for an entomology professor!

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