Monday Marvels: Ants Go Marching

Iridomyrmex  Photo: Steve Shattuck

Iridomyrmex Photo: Steve Shattuck

The Tiny Explorer’s Story

I stopped my search for a moment to look up at a single white cloud drifting silently through the bright sky and then turned downward, crouching and stepping carefully through the sticky terrain.

“Where was it? Over here?” I asked Mama without even turning my head. “This is it! This is it!” I shouted. Mama quickly joined me as we stared down between our muddy shoes to an inconspicuous patch of raised dirt surrounding an oval shaped hole.

“What are they doing today?” Mama inquired.

“They look busy. I think they are just going in and out and in and out.” I stated confidently as we simultaneously leaned in to get a closer look at the ants emerging and retreating from the hole.

Mm Ants 11.28.18.gif

“I think you’re right. But, why are they going in and out? Let’s watch.” Mama replied. We watched the ants climb out with determination, each moving in a different direction from the hole. Mama pointed to a particularly large ant and asked “Do you see that? Is it carrying something?”

I followed a shiny black ant from the shadow of the hole to the brightness of the sun and realized that it had a small, round clump of something light brown in front of it’s head. The ant turned immediately back to the hole after dropping off this mysterious brown ball on the raised mound of dirt.

“What is that?” I implored emphatically.

“Hmm, look at the color of the ball, is it the same as the hill around the hole?” Mama encouraged me to look more closely.

“I think so,” I paused and thought. “It’s the soil!” I exclaimed sharply.

“What do you think the ant is doing with that soil?”

“It seems to be carrying it out of the hole.” I said. I noticed two more ants carrying the same kind of brown ball out of the hole and placing it a short distance away, then immediately turning back to go inside the hole. “Look, they’re all carrying the soil!” I exclaimed with a small hop.

“Yeeeessss, wow! They are working very hard carrying all that soil. But why do you think they are carrying it out? Are they making something?”

“They are making the ant hill! They’re bringing the soil out and building an ant hill!” I stood up straight and turned to scan the small dirt field. “Can we look for more ant hills?” I asked with excitement.

“Let’s go!” Mama followed with a thoughtful look. As we arrived at the next ant hill, Mama asked me a very interesting question. “Where are they getting all the soil from? Could they be making something under the ground?”

I was very curious. They had made the hole, but I didn’t know what more could be beyond the hole. Was it a deep hole? What was inside the hole? I wanted to know.

“Mama, can we get a book about ant hills?”

The Exploration

Mama here, there are so many fascinating behaviors to observe in these most abundant of creatures: ANTS! We are so lucky to be able to find them anywhere! Search for ant hills with your child. There are so many different things to observe and discuss!

FIVE Questions About Ant Hills for Tiny Explorers

Here’s what we love to talk about:

  • What is the size of the ant hill? They can be big or small.

  • What is the shape of the ant hill?

  • What is the color of the soil in the hill? Is it the same or different from the surrounding soil?

  • What are the ants doing with the soil?

  • The ants are working hard bringing all the soil out, will it change (grow/shrink) over time? Go back and visit ant hills to see if they change.

While our tiny explorers don’t always have the answers (and neither do we!), we can engage their curiosity by asking questions and encouraging observations to find the answers.

Our observations led to a discussion of what the ant hill is really all about: It’s part of the ant nest, the ants’ home! But is their home above or below the ground? (Well, it can be both, depending on the species of ant!) And what does it look like under all that soil?

FIVE Facts About Ant Hills

  • Ant hills are made around the opening of an ant nest. The hill is like the gateway to the nest, which is a network of tunnels and chambers under ground or even within the hill. (Tunnels can be as deep as 15 ft (4.5 m)!)

  • Ant hills are made from soil and other unwanted objects (leaves, sticks, and other plant material) taken from the tunnels in the nest.

  • Some ants build the ant hills into beautiful shapes or structures using soil and/or clay.

  • Ant hills are made by worker ants, who are female.

  • Ant hills can be part of a huge colony that includes many hills and many nests (like 1000s!).

Here are a few photos of ant colonies large and small!

Ant Colony displayed in the Natural History Museum, Geneve

Ant Colony displayed in the Natural History Museum, Geneve

Allegeheny Mound ant hill ( Formica exsectoides )

Allegeheny Mound ant hill (Formica exsectoides)

Photo:  Bhaskaranaidu
Harvester ant nest from Pune, Maharashtra, India.

Harvester ant nest from Pune, Maharashtra, India.

Check out this video of a tiny camera looking into the nest of the Allegeheny Mound Ants (Formica exsectoides) found in North America.

I’d love to hear about your adventures exploring ant hills! Leave a comment to let me know if you’ve done this, or if you’re planning to!

Happy exploring, my friend!