Friday, September 9, 2011

September Study 3: Ants,Termites and Ant Lions

Originally published 2011. Edited and republished for the Simple Science Strategies Blog Carnival, September 2012.


Fall is a time when lots of creatures begin to make preparations for the winter, while the weather is still warm and food is abundant. It's a good time to observe insects, especially social insects, like ants and bees, who get busy in the fall preparing their colonies for colder weather.

Every fall and spring, there is a line of black ants that passes through our kitchen, from some distinct point outside, to some distinct point somewhere on the other side of the house. They annoy us for a couple of days, then they disappear as quickly as they arrived. Similarly, about this time of year, we witness a parade of citronella ants moving from point A to point B in the yard, leaving their tell-tale orange-y odor behind them

Ants are an easy creature to study using the One Small Square strategy for observation.

Before You Go Outside

  • Read up on ants in the Handbook of Nature Study (pp. 369-378).
  • Gather materials you might need for your outdoor studies: hand lenses, string or something else to mark your square, clipboards, a few crackers (one per pair of students), the observation sheet of your choice (see below).
  • Read One Small Square: Practice Looking Closely at the World and Outdoor Hour Challenge #9: One Small Square for a description of how to carry out the observation activity. 
  • Prepare observation sheets for each student.
  • Teach students how to work with a partner.
  • Review the five senses.
  • Find a place that is out of the way where you can set up your observation area. I used to use the sandy area at the edge of the blacktop on the playground as my ant observation area. The area should be large enough to accommodate enough "squares" for all the pairs of students in your class. If it makes it easier for the custodians, mark out the area with stakes and "flags" so it doesn't get disturbed.

The One Small Square Strategy
  • Pair up your students. Think about roles -- do you want all students to sketch and record, or do you want one student to take the job as recorder?
  • Take the students outside and let them choose a "square" as their study area. (If it makes it easier, pre-mark the squares). Guide students to select an area where there are signs of ant activity. 

Five-day study:

Day 1:

  1. Use a journal page with a large space for illustration. Draw the ant hill in your square. 
  2. Where are the ants? Which direction are they heading? Watch what they do when they meet one another. Do they appear to interact with one another? How? What are the ants doing as they move about?
  3. How many ants do you think live in the ant hill?
  4. What do you think their home looks like below ground?
  5. Write some observations in your nature journal.
Day 2:
  1. Use a lined journal page with a small space for illustration today. Find one ant. Draw it in the small square. 
  2. Watch what your ant does. Try to make a note every minute or two minutes (you'll have to practice writing notes, not full sentences). 
  3. During this time, your partner should watch a different ant, recording what that ant does.
  4. Do the ants appear to have jobs? Do all the ants do the same activities? Compare your observations to your partner's. Did your ants do the same things?
 Day 3:
  1. Use a journal page with a half-page for illustration, and half-page with lines. Take a cracker with you when you observe your ant hill.
  2. Place some cracker crumbs where the ants are active, but a few inches away from the entrance to the ant hill.
  3. How long does it take for the ants to find the cracker crumbs? What does the first ant do? What happens next? Do other ants come? How do they know to go there? Where do they take the cracker crumbs?
  4. What do you think they use the cracker crumbs for? Why do you think this?
 Day 4:
  1. Use a journal page with space for two illustrations. Label one "before" and one "after."
  2. Draw your ant hill as it looks today. Make sure to note where ants are located, also.
  3. Now, carefully cover the entrance to the hole in the ant hill, by brushing the sand into the hole.
  4. Watch how the ants respond to this. What do they do? Do they become more active? Do they run away? Do they unblock the hole? Talk to your partner about what you see.
  5. About 5 minutes before your observation is finished, draw the way the ant hill looks. Did the ants unblock the entrance? Did they create a new one? Did they work together? How did they cooperate? Why do you think ants behave this way?
Day 5:
  1. Use a journal page like the one you used the first day. Go outside to observe your ant hill when the weather is very different from the first day (for example, after a rainstorm, or on a cold day, or a very hot day).
  2. Draw what you see. Does the ant hill look different? Why or why not? Are the ants doing the same things as the other days? If they aren't, why not?
  3. Can you make an inference about the relationship between activities of ants and weather? 

Follow-up Activities in the Classroom:

Learn More About Social Insects
  • Use the library and the Internet to learn more about social insects, such as honeybees, ants and termites.
  • Global Newt has online games that teach about social insects, using a termite mound, bee hive and ant hill as the settings for the game.
  • Record your research on this research worksheet


Ant lion pit
Look for Ant Lions
Ant lion (doodlebug). (c) Scott Robinson, 2005 via Creative Commons.


Identify Your Ants

Citronella ants smell like citronella candles when disturbed. (c) A Child's Garden, 2010.

 Literacy and Math Connections

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