Weekend Science Fun: Inspired by Ants

This weekend I'm doing related posts on all three of my blogs, all inspired by a new children's book, Little Black Ant on Park Street by Janet Halfmann and Illustrated by Kathleen Rietz, part of the excellent Smithsonian’s Backyard series. At Wild About Ants, I just posted about the biology of the little black ant. I also posted a review of the book on my Wrapped In Foil Blog. Here at Growing With Science let's explore some hands on activities to reinforce learning about ants.Little-black-ant

1. Build an Ant Using Marshmallows and Toothpicks

Gather:

    • close-up photographs of ants
    • marshmallows, big and mini
    • toothpicks
    • information on ant anatomy (Ask-A-Biologist at Arizona State University has an excellent resource on Ant Anatomy, with accompanying activity sheets)

(Edit: Now go to the link and download the "Ant Farm" .pdf for ant-related activities as well.)

Important Note:  Ant anatomy is actually more complicated than for most insects. In general, insects have six legs, three body parts and one pair of antennae. Ants, however, are unique in some ways. Many, many children's books about ants may list their three body parts as head, thorax and abdomen, without taking into account how ants are special. When adult ants are developing their lovely thin “waists” within the pupa, a bit of the true abdomen gets pressed up against the thorax, and the rest of the abdomen becomes the waist and the hind section. When scientists realized this, they thought,  “Hum, we can’t really call that middle section a thorax, if it’s really a thorax and a bit of abdomen pushed together. And we can’t call the back section an abdomen if it’s only part of the abdomen… so we’ll call the middle part a mesosoma, and the back part a metasoma or sometimes gaster. The thin part between the mesosoma and metasoma/gaster is called the petiole. The head is still a head. 🙂

You might want to decide ahead of time whether you are going to expect the children to make an accurate representation of an ant, in which case you'll need to go over the anatomy first, or whether you are going to let them do ant "sculptures." I admit I tend to go for letting the children express their own vision of what an ant looks like (including putting the legs on the metasoma, having eight body parts, etc.).

marsh-ant

Generally after experimentation and eating many of the trials, your child may reach something like this.

marsh-ant2

The child may even notice that the antennae are bent, like elbows in arms. This example was made by an older child who had studied ants before.

2. Gatekeepers to the Ant Colony - exploring our senses

Little Black Ant on Park Street talks about the little black ant guarding the door to keep out strangers. This activity allows children to investigate entrance guarding in ants.

This activity works best with a group.

Gather:

  • small, opaque containers or vials, for example old film canisters. Apply masking tape to the outside if you can see through it
  • cotton balls
  • scents such as vanilla, root beer and/or peppermint extracts, lemons, flower scented perfumes and/or bath oils

Place a cotton ball in each container. Try to prepare at least one container for each person participating. Add a small amount of scent to the cotton ball and flip it over in the container, so there are no visual cues as to the scent's identity at the surface. (Otherwise the children can guess from the color, for example, vanilla is brown.) Make at least a third of the containers with the primary scent, such as the vanilla. That will represent the colony odor of the nest, and anyone with that scent will be nest mates. Add one scent per container to the remaining vials. Smell each one to make sure you can detect the odor. (I recently prepared a batch and didn't check them. What I thought was a lemon scent did not come through at all. Lesson learned.)

Pick one or two children to guard the entrance of the ant colony. Give them each a canister with the primary odor, but don't tell them what it is. The guards will smell each ant (child's container) who wants to enter. If the smell of the entering child's container matches that of the guards, then the child is a nest mate and can enter. If the odor doesn't match, then the entering child is an intruder and the guards should block him or her from entering. If you make enough containers several children can take turns being guards, and being let in or excluded.

As you can see, there are a lot of fun projects to do with ants. I would love to hear about how your projects turn out or if you have some fun science experiments with ants.


(Affiliate Link)

This book was provided by the publisher. I had already purchased others in the Smithsonian's Backyard series.

Related:

You might also want to try observing ants and a growing list of more ant books for kids at Science Books for Kids.

4 thoughts on “Weekend Science Fun: Inspired by Ants

  1. Post author

    One friend e-mailed me with other suggestions for materials, like black olives or jelly beans (I'm not sure how easy it is to toothpick in those, but it might be worth a try). Any other ideas?

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