In case you didn’t know, an ant farm is an artificial nest of ants in which you and your kids can observe the activities of a collection of worker ants as they dig tunnels and chambers and interact with each other. They’ve been around for years, mainly as home-made efforts of glass and wood. Now, however the ant farm has taken a leap into the twenty-first century with the introduction of NASA-inspired gel ant farms. These use a transparent nutrient gel instead of sand as the medium through which the ants burrow. It makes them much easier to watch and much easier to keep too.
So what can we learn as we watch our ants? Well, on the whole, insect behaviour is one of stimulus-response and very little else. The environment provides some sort of stimulus and the insect responds to it in a certain way. There’s very little free will associated with insect behaviour. It’s thought that the average worker ant has about 100 neurons in its nervous system. With that small number there’s very little capacity available for proper cognitive thinking. In fact it is remarkable that ants are capable of showing the wide range of responsive behaviour that they do.
If you watch closely, you’ll see individual ants interacting with each other. They’ll touch feelers (or antennae) in an attempt (we believe) of trying to identify each other. Ants have very poor eyesight, their compound eyes have between twenty and thirty individual lenses (or ommatidia as they are called) and the optical resolution is probably low, to say the least. Most of ant communication is via scent. They lay scent trails for others to follow when they find a food source. That’s how an orange dropped on a pavement can become surrounded by ants in a few minutes. The ant that originally finds the orange will make its way back to the nest, leaving a scent trail that will lead it and its colleagues back to the orange. Quite how the original ant communicates the message ‘food’ to the others is still unclear. It’s possible that different scents mean different things or that there’s just one scent, and that means ‘food’.
We do know that ants are able to make sounds, although you’ll never be able to hear them. There have been examples of ants in ant farms becoming trapped in various ways, just as would happen in a natural nest, and being rescued by other ants. We assume that the distressed ant is emitting a ‘help’ sound that the other can hear and respond to. Again with only 100 neurons to play with, this is remarkable complex behavior.
A Great Gift
These are just two of the behaviours you’ll be able to see in your ant farm. You’ll also see some wonderful examples of cooperative behaviour. It all makes an ant farm one of the most interesting gift you can give a child, and one that might set them off on a journey of discovery that, hopefully, will never end.