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As some of you might know, I studied ants for my M.S. degree. When I heard the new middle grade realistic fiction book The Nora Notebooks, Book 1: The Trouble with Ants by Claudia Mills and illustrated by Katie Kath was about a 10-year-old girl who is passionate about ants, I knew I had to pick it up.

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It was even better than I hoped. Fourth grader Nora keeps an ant farm. She also records fascinating facts about ants in a journal, with quotes sprinkled throughout the book. She even does a simple experiment with ants and writes a paper about it. If that was all the book was about it would be good, but author Claudia Mills takes it to the next level by including many layers of story. For more details and a full review, see our sister blog, Wrapped in Foil.

Activity 1. How many species of ants?

Often when you read a book about ants, you will see the number of species listed as a fact. Depending on the book, however, the number can vary considerably. Why is that?

Generally, the number of ant species will be different depending on how recently the book is published. Ant scientists (or myrmecologists) are discovering and describing new species all the time and expect the final number to reach upwards of 30,000 species when all potential species have been discovered.

Another reason the number of ant species changes is because scientists who study the classification of ants sometimes realize ants are related in ways that were not previously recognized. When that happens, species can be renamed, grouped with other species, or sometimes one species may be split into two.

woodant-M(Public domain photograph of a wood ant by Alex Wild)

So, how many ant species are there? One place to find out the current number is a collaborative website like AntWeb which lists the number of species of ants on its homepage as 15,957 as of today (October 9, 2015).

Try to find out how many ant species there are in your area. Antmaps.org is a fun resource to help you. With the map in the "Diversity View," I clicked on Arizona and found there are 353 native species here. That's a lot of different kinds of ants! Suggestion:  Draw your own infographic map of ant species in your area and find out what some of those species are using the global and regional resources at AntWeb.

Why should we care how many species there are and where they are found? One reason is that it can be helpful to know if new, alien species are coming in. Exotic or alien species often crowd out native species and become pests because they have left their natural enemies behind. We also should know whether species are dying out so we can take steps to prevent their loss.

ant-drawing-activityCheck the ant anatomy activity from a previous post for a detailed explanation of the special anatomical terms used for ants.

And don't forget, if you know a budding myrmecologist, be sure to introduce them to The Trouble With Ants.

Related:

Age Range: 7 - 10 years
Hardcover: 176 pages
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (September 22, 2015)
ISBN-10: 0385391617
ISBN-13: 978-0385391610

Disclosures: This book was provided by the publisher for review purposes. I am an affiliate with Amazon so I can provide you with cover images and links to more information about books and products. As you probably are aware, if you click through the highlighted title link and purchase a product, I will receive a very small commission, at not extra cost to you. Any proceeds help defray the costs of hosting and maintaining this website.

Yesterday we introduced the lovely plant, Thurber's cotton, Gossypium thurberi.

While I was taking photographs of the plant, I noticed some ants.

ant-on-flower-petal-2These kind of ants are called rover ants. They are not very big. What are they doing on the plant?

ant-visiting-floral-nectaryHere's one in the flower. It is visiting the nectar-producing area or "floral nectary."

ants-at-EFNs-darkThe rover ants were also visiting an area under the flowers, on the sepals. Any ideas why?

ant-visiting-EFN-33Having some experience with cotton plants, I  realized the ants were visiting some nectar-producing areas there as well. Nectaries outside the flower proper are called "extrafloral nectaries." See that dimpled area the ant is facing? That is an extrafloral nectary.

ants-at-EFN-multipleAs you can see, the extrafloral nectaries on the plant were very popular.

Many different plants produce nectar in various extrafloral nectaries and most of them attract ants and small wasps.

The most commonly-reported reason that plants have these structures is that the nectaries attract predators and parasites, which in turn attack the eggs and larvae of plant-feeding insects they encounter.

Have you ever seen ants visiting nectaries on plants? What kind of plant was it?

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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.


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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.