Today let’s take a look at a children’s book about ants with suggestions for accompanying hands-on activities.
Look Inside an Ant Nest (Pebble Plus: Look Inside Animal Homes) by Megan Nicole Cooley Peterson is a straightforward nonfiction book that explores the unseen world of an ant nest. Laid out with large color photographs on the right side page and simple sentences with controlled, subject-specific vocabulary on the left, it is perfect for the beginning reader (first grade reading level). The large size also makes it easy to hold up and read in front of a group of young children. One of the photographs is by Alex Wild, the rest are from stock sources.
Suggested activities to accompany the book:
1. Ant life cycle
Crayons and or markers
Photographs of ant eggs, ant larvae, ant pupae, ant workers, and ant queens (see links below)
Have the children draw each stage, keeping in mind:
The eggs are smaller than the workers; the pupae are the same size as the workers or larger. (Is it an egg or a pupa?)
Pupae are sometimes covered with a silken bag called a cocoon and sometimes not, depending on the ant species.
Adult ants emerge from the pupae. Worker pupae are the same size as the workers. Queen and male pupae are larger than the average worker.
For older children, let them construct the life cycle in 3D, for example using marshmallow ants.
2. Ant nests
Dr. Walter Tschinkel has modified a technique for looking at the structure of ant nests by pouring dental plaster or various metals, such as aluminum, into the tunnels, allowing it to dry and then digging up the nest. This gives a negative-space impression of some truly impressive ant nests.
This amazing video shows how it is done by experts. (Do not try this at home).
More about Dr. Walter Tschinkel’s Ant Castles can be found at the Florida State University. He’s says that the ants can build the huge one at the bottom in just five days!
1. Draw pictures of some of Walter Tschinkel’s amazing ant nest casts. Label the chambers and tunnels.
2. For older students: Design and draw plans for an underground home for humans. What would be the advantages of living underground? What might some of the problems be? Try drawing up your plans on Google Sketchup or a similar program.
Reading level: Ages 4 and up
Library Binding: 24 pages
Publisher: Capstone Press (August 1, 2011)
Book was provided by publisher for review purposes.
Are you interested in old books about ants? The City Under the Back Steps by Evelyn Sibley Lampman and illustrated by Honore Valintcourt is a children’s book about ants that was published in 1960. It is out of print, but you can buy a used copy (if you don’t mind paying quite a bit of money). The reason it is expensive is that it is actually a very good book.
The premise of the story is a boy and a girl are shrunken to the size of ants. Suddenly their back yard becomes a terrifying jungle full of dangers and wonders. They are taken underground into an ants’ nest where they meet the ants’ pet cricket, learn about the life cycles of ants and have a number of adventures. Think of the movie Honey I Shrunk the Kids with a much more accurate representation of the life of the ants.
Thanks to my friend Robyn, I was able to listen to the book on CD. She had discovered that Chinaberry has set of CDs for $19.95. Edit: Sorry, no longer available.
If you like stories that mix sweeping imagination with a great deal of detailed natural history, then you just might want to give it a try.
For our first July book review, let’s take a look at an older book that is not exactly about ants, but is related. At a recent stop at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology gift shop, I managed to snag a copy of Antbirds & Ovenbirds: Their Lives and Homes by Alexander F. Skutch. This book, which is currently out of print, was originally published by the University of Texas, Austin in 1996. Of course I was mostly interested in the antbirds.
What exactly are antbirds?
You may not have heard of these somewhat elusive birds that live mostly in the tropical forests of Central and South America. Antbirds are named for their habit of foraging alongside army ant swarms, mostly Eciton burchellii. They grab insects and other small creatures that scuttle, jump or fly up in an effort to try to avoid the approaching army ants. They do not feed extensively on the army ants themselves.
Antbirds are not easy to study. There are over 250 species in three families, and more are being discovered each year. The smallest of the antbirds are called antwrens. Other groups are the antvireos, antshrikes, antthrushes and antpittas, named for the colorful pitta birds of the Old World. Some have small crests, like our familiar Northern cardinal or blue jay. Most are striking mixes of reddish-brown, black, white and gray. Each has its own way of following the ants and exhibits different behaviors and food preferences.
Author Alexander Skutch was a naturalist who was born in the United States, but moved to Costa Rica and lived there until his death in 2004. Originally trained as a botanist (he obtained his doctorate in that field), he switched to studying the birds of Central and South America, including the antbirds. He wrote some 200 books on various aspects of bird biology, as well as other topics. Accompanying the text are black and white drawings by Dana Gardner.
In Antbirds & Ovenbirds, Skutch discusses the behavior of army ants, too, because it is what drives the birds. He addresses the nomadic phase and the static phase of the colony cycle. He also spends quite a bit of time dispelling the myths about the feeding habits of New World army ants. He gives examples of his own observations that show that antbirds are not in danger from the ants and that the New World army ants do not feed on vertebrates, even dead ones.
Stutch was a keen observer and has many interesting insights. Some of his narrative wanders a bit, but it is personal and charming. His account of a bicolored antbird that followed him in his travels through the forests over a series of months, capturing the arthropods Skutch kicked up, is both funny and heartwarming.
If you are interested in the natural history of unique birds or you are planning a trip to the tropics, then you might want to take a look at this book. Although out of print, through the wonders of modern technology you can find an excerpt at Google Books and you can download an electronic copy at Powell’s (for a fee), as well as find used copies for sale.
For more information on antbirds and army ants, try:
Although I set an ambitious goal of Chapters 13-16, as you could probably gather, it took more time then I expected to digest the information in Chapters 13-15. Let’s take a look at those chapters and save Chapter 16 for next week.
(For those of you jumping in late, we are discussing The Fire Ants by Dr. Walter Tschinkel by going over a few chapters per week. Click “The Fire Ants Book Discussion” category for related posts.)
Chapter 13. Another way for a queen to take over a colony
In addition to the drama of incipient colony foundation by independent queens discussed in the last post, Solenopsis invicta colonies have yet another way to gain reproductive success. Mature colonies produce a second set of reproductives in the fall, which overwinter in the nest. The overwintered females fly in early spring, under much different conditions than reproductives reared in the spring. The overwintered females try to take over established colonies that have lost their own queen, or have become orphaned. If they are not successful, the overwintered females are incapable of starting a colony of their own and simply perish. Tschinkel calls this type of behavior “dependent colony founding,” apparently because the queen depends on the presence of orphaned mature colonies to be successful (?).
The overwintering females may also take over their own natal nest if their mother dies. In this case they do not mate, and produce only males. In orphaned colonies with overwintering females, 86% had unmated sisters for their queen, whereas 14% had queens that had stolen in from other colonies. When no overwintering females were present in the orphaned colonies, 62% had unrelated queens and 38% percent had sisters (top of page 189). I did wonder where those sisters came from if there were no overwintering females. Any thoughts?
Tschinkel reaches the conclusion that Solenopsis invicta is a “weedy species” because independently founding queens are much more successful in sites lacking competing mature colonies. Only 3% of colonies showed evidence of dependent founding. In contrast, Solenopsis geminata had a much higher success rate of dependent queen founding, with up to a third of colonies showing evidence of that type of founding.
What do you think of the technique of using match-mated females to determine the success of dependent founding queens?
Chapter 14. Colony Growth
How do you keep track of how an ant colony grows? In the case of Solenopsis invicta, you can start with even-aged cohorts by opening a new area to colonization. To get a count of number of workers, Markin drove a large cylinder into the soil around a fire ant colony and then slowly flooded out the workers. Tschinkel developed a method for sampling soil and ants from a colony during excavation. It is tedious and difficult work, which explains why so few of these types of studies have been undertaken.
The results suggest a colony on rough average reaches maturity around four years (and lives up to eight years), with around 200,000 workers.
As with individual organisms, temperature and the amount/quality of food available determined how fast a colony grew in laboratory conditions.
Did you find any points particularly interesting for this chapter? Anything I skipped over that you would like to discuss?
Chapter 15. Another aspect of colony growth: What types of ants are produced and when?
When a colony grows, it changes in composition as well as in worker number. The incipient colony starts out with tiny minims. Over time, workers of a range of sizes are added. Eventually the colony begins to produce reproductives.
How much energy does a colony allocate to each type of ant? Tschinkel estimates, based on worker mortality, that a average fire ant queen produces 2.74 million workers during her lifetime. The colony’s reproductive success depends on optimally allocating resources between workers and reproductives. Too many workers, and the colony loses opportunities to reproduce. If there are too many alates, there won’t be enough workers to feed them all.
As a colony grows and becomes mature, a higher percentage of the workers are the large or major workers. He only briefly mentions juvenile hormone as a possible mechanism in the switch to larger workers, as well as level of food.
Do you know of any recent research that sheds more light on this topic?
Tschinkel also disscusses how the nest grows with colony size and how the size of the colony’s territory changes as well. He ends with a summary of how the colony ends, which he describes as resulting from the queen likely running out of sperm and thus being no longer able to produce replacement workers or female alates.
Do you have any comments on Chapter 15?
Interlude: The Porter Wedge Micrometer
A device for measuring 200 head widths of ants in one hour? Sounds like a dream come true. What do you think of Tschinkel’s idea that it has been slow to catch on due to “cultural viscosity?” I admit I did it the old-fashioned way, but I pinned all my specimens first. Now that was tedious!
Have you tried a wedge micrometer? How do you measure your ant head widths?
Let’s try to cover Chapters 16 and 17 this week, with the Interludes (up to page 271). Is anyone further along than that? Let us know, and I’ll try to move ahead more quickly.