How Temperature Affects Ants Building Habits
By Carter Synhorst
Estimated Class Time
A total of four 50-minute class periods. The first two days and the last day will take all 50 minutes. The remaining 50 minutes can be divided up over a week, so the students can observe the ants for a few minutes at the start of each lesson.
This lesson will teach the students how warmer temperatures will make insects move, grow, eat, and reproduce faster. Ants are cold blooded, so therefore changing the temperature around them will dramatically affect their activity levels. The students can also learn about the morphology of ants to see why cold temperatures are so hard on them. The children can help feed the ants, help place the ants in the habitats, and measure how far the ants are digging each day. If you would like, the children can help build the ant farms as well.
By creating thin walled ant farms, the children will be able to see the ants tunneling and moving food each day. If a cold object is placed inside the farm, the ants will move slower. If the area around the farm is warmed up, the ants will be faster. This is a very simple experiment to run, and the children could even work on this project at home. It is a great way to learn about ecosystems, and life cycles in a practical way.
Background and Introduction to Study Insect
Insects are cold blooded just like snakes and turtles. This means that when the outside temperatures are too low, the insects will have a very hard time going about their normal day to day activities. “Cold-blooded actually means the animal’s body temperature is basically the same as its surroundings” (Hiller, 1983). Once the spring and summer temperatures start to rise, the ants will begin to get more active. Ants are most active between 75 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit (Terminx, 2018). The simplest way to think about it is that insects have a poor surface area to volume ratio. Insects have too much body surface area compared to how little volume they have inside their bodies. They are simply too small to generate enough heat inside to keep them at a constant temperature. When the summer temperatures arrive, the ants will eat and build at the fastest rate all year. Many ants dig different size nests based on their species. The Florida harvester ant can build a nest that is nearly seven feet deep (Humphreys, Nov. 2003), while the ant Camponotus socius (a Floridian carpenter ant) constructs a nest that is only about two feet deep (Freeman, 2018). Both of these species are also less than a half an inch long.
Ants also have a very specific caste system in each colony, and each ant has a specific job. This division of labor makes the colony prosper and run quite smoothly. The biggest and most important ant in the colony is the queen. She is the largest female and is responsible for laying all the eggs to reproduce new ants. She has a thick abdomen and also has wings when she starts a new colony. After the queen starts her new colony, she will usually remove her wings because she does not need them anymore (The Secrets of Royalty, 2018). The males have wings too, but they have abdomens that are much narrower. There are fewer male ants in the colony, and their job is to fly away from their current colony and reproduce with a new queen. Also, as soon as the males mate with a potential queen, they promptly die, and the queen can determine the sex of her offspring to make sure there are enough workers and enough males for starting new colonies (Fire Ant Queens, Aug. 2001). The workers in an ant colony are all sterile females. These are the most common ants you see. They dig, harvest food, and raise the immature ant larvae (Antkeepers, 2018). The workers do not have wings, and they also provide the queen’s basic necessities.
Each colony has many different chambers and rooms built underground. The ants store food in some parts and the immature ants in another (Humphreys, Nov. 2003). A lot of the rooms will be filled with seeds, which are a great food item to feed your ants during this project. As the colony grows the ants will expand the number of rooms. All these chambers help ants survive the winters as well. The ants will congregate in large groups to save body heat, and they will also huddle around the queen to help keep her warm deep in one of these chambers (Terro, 2018). Observing the ants making their tunnels and chambers in the classroom is quite easy. They are very low maintenance and easy to raise. You will be constructing two separate ant farms for your lesson, but you can keep both going after the lesson is over for class pets.
The students will learn that warmer temperatures make ants burrow at a significantly faster rate.
The students will learn to record the daily observations comparing the two ants’ progress in constructing a colony. Then the students will be able to make a simple graph of the digging rate versus temperature relationship in order to predict how a warmer climate could cause the ants to develop significantly faster.
The students will learn that the warmer temperature ants will require more food compared to the colder ones.
The students will be able to discuss and explain how large ant colonies actually are, even though they are created by a relatively small insect.
The students will learn about the different types of ants and the role of each type.
Next Generation Science Standards
3-LS2-1 Ecosystems. Constructing an argument that some animals work together for the good of the group. https://www.nextgenscience.org/topic-arrangement/3interdependent-relationships-ecosystems-environmental-impacts-organisms
3-LS4-3 Environmental Impacts on Organisms. Teaching the students how different environments affect the insects’ daily life. https://www.nextgenscience.org/topic-arrangement/3interdependent-relationships-ecosystems-environmental-impacts-organisms
Teacher Lesson Plan Instructions
Materials for Part 1:
-Handout with the 3 different types of ants
-Ant building handout. It is included at the bottom of this lesson.
Materials for Part 2:
Ants. They can be ordered from Carolina Supply (Ant Farm Replacement, 2018) or Amazon. It is wise to order ants instead of collecting wild ants. You could accidentally get a very aggressive species that might bite the children. Ordering them is much safer. You will need about 30 ants.
Sand and garden soil mixed together to make loam. This is the material that you will place in your ant farm for the insects to dig through.
4 glass jars or large soda bottles. You need two large soda bottles and two smaller bottles that can fit inside the big ones. You will need some Vaseline, aluminum foil, and a rubber band as well.
If you are using soda bottles, start with two liter bottles and cut the tops off; then cut the top off of 2, one liter bottles. Glue the one liter bottle inside the larger, the 2 liter one and fill the narrow space between the bottles with the loam. If you spill a tiny bit of loam inside a one liter bottle, it is ok. This narrow space between the two bottles is where the ants will dig. You want the gap between the two bottles to be pretty narrow, otherwise the ants will tunnel away from you and the children will not be able to see them digging.
Coat the inside top inch of the two liter bottles with Vaseline. This will help prevent the ants from escaping.
Seal the top of one of the one liter bottles with aluminum foil and a rubber band so that the ants will not be able to get inside.
Coat the top inch of the other one liter bottle with Vaseline inside and outside the bottle. This bottle will not get a lid put on it like the other ant farm. It needs to have an open mouth so that you can add ice later for the experiment.
See the appendix below for more details, pictures, and a more thorough explanation on this whole construction process.
If you are using glass jars, wikihow has an excellent tutorial about how to construct your habitats. See: https://www.wikihow.com/Build-an-Ant-Farm
Three 20 ounce soda bottles.
2 sticky aquarium thermometers. You will attach the thermometers to the ant farm to keep track of the daily temperature (zoo med, 2018)
Ant Food. You can place small pieces of fruits or vegetables, nuts, or seeds in your farm. (Thomson, 2018). However, whatever you feed to one farm needs to be fed to the other farm. We only want to test the effect of temperature, not food preference.
Dog treats also work well.
A heat lamp. An infrared lamp would probably be the best to limit the extra light variable. All major pet stores have very cheap lamps. You don’t need an expensive one. The cheapest is fine. (Petsmart, 2018.)
Follow the directions to make either glass or plastic ant farms. Construct your two identical ant farms with either jars or soda bottles and add the loam to the inside and the thermometer to the outside of the container. Make marks on the outside of each ant farm in one inch increments (like shown in the appendix), starting at the top level of the loam and working your way down the bottle. This is so that later on you will be able to measure how far down the ants are digging (step 6). Fill your 20 ounce bottles about three fourths full with water and freeze them for later use. You can easily make each ant farm in a couple of hours. It will probably take you longer to drink all the soda than to make the ant farms! You might want to purchase your soda in advance to start drinking it, or look for bottles in the recycle bin. This way you won’t have to purchase or drink so much soda. As long the bottles are in decent shape, they will work just fine. Now your ant farms are ready for the lesson.
Methods: Step-by-Step Instructions
Activity Part 1: This first part will take all of the first class period and a little of the second days class.
Teach the children about the 3 different types of ants in the caste system. Give each student a copy of the handout provided to show the different morphological traits of each type of ant. Before you begin talking about the 3 types of ants, have the students tell you about what they know about ants. Let them tell you if they know how many types there are and the roles of the types they list.
Have a discussion with the students about the size of ant nests. Write down some of the common questions on the board about ants, so that you can answer these as you explain how large and complex ant nests can become.
Have the students take home the ant building assignment. Since this is a simple task, also have them list any additional questions that they have about how ants dig or the different types of ants. They should be able to list at least five questions for discussion in class. Most children will think there is only one type of ant. Have the children bring the paper back the next day, and turn it in. Then teach them the very basics about how heat affects the ants and makes them work faster. Tell them they will get to see this over the next week of class. After you have explained that ants are cold blooded, you should be able to guide them into a hypothesis for the test. You can have them turn in the ant building assignment later in the week or when the entire experiment is finished.
The ants in the warmer ant farm will tunnel throughout the soil faster than the ants in the cold ant farm.
Activity Part 2:
This will take the rest of the second day’s class period and the first few minutes of class for the next week.
Make sure you have constructed the ant farm habitats (container, loam, and thermometers) before the lesson begins, but don’t put any ants in yet. If you want, you can have the students help you build the ant farms in class, but this will most likely add an additional class period that was not accounted for in the original recommendation. Set up the two ant farms on the same side of the room, you don’t want one near a window and the other in the dark side. Make sure they are getting the same amount of light and are at the same ambient room temperature. Also, place them where they are not going to be disturbed.
Have the children place the ants in each habitat. Let the students feel the ants crawling on their skin and each student can place their own ant in one of the habitats. You can let one or two ants be used for a demonstration while you place the others in the habitats. You can let the demonstration ants crawl on the tables and the children can watch them and observe their behavior. Divide up all your ants evenly between the two containers. Then place some food on the soil in each container and add a little bit of water to make the loam slightly moist. You don’t want standing water in the ant farm and you also don’t want the ants to completely dry out. Then seal each ant farm with a ventilated lid. A piece of saran wrap and a rubber band works well for a lid. Make sure there are some very tiny holes in the lid.
Place one ant farm next to the heat lamp so the thermometer reaches between 80 and 90 degrees. Make sure that the children do not touch the heat lamp or get too close to it, they can easily get burned!! You will need to move the ant farm a little until you find the right spot. You don’t want to be too cold, but you definitely don’t want the ants to die if your farm is too hot. It would be best to have the lamp above the ant farm so it is casting an even amount of heat over the whole thing and so it is higher and more out of reach. Place a frozen 20 ounce water bottle inside the 1 liter bottle in the other ant farm, and place it a little ways away from the warmer farm. This will cool off this farm considerably. Make sure that none of the heat from the heat lamp is radiating onto the cold ant farm. You will have to replace the frozen bottle at the beginning and end of each day. You want the cold ant farm to stay in the 50-60 degree range.
Feed and water each farm as needed for the next week. Always feed each farm the exact same type of food, and the same amount of food each time. Don’t give seeds to one farm and apples to the other. Remove any old food every couple of days so that mold does not begin to grow in the farms. The warmer ant farm should require more food and water. The warmer temperatures should make the ants eat more because they are able to work faster. Make sure you are putting the same amount of food in each ant farm even if the warmer ants eat more.
A helpful suggestion would be to place a dog treat, like a milkbone, in each farm at the beginning of the test. This way they will have enough food for the week, and you can see at the end of the week which farm ate more.
If you use something like sunflower seeds, you can easily count how many seeds each ant farm is eating. If you use fruit slices, it will be harder to measure because you will need to weigh out the fruit before and after each feeding to see how much was consumed. I would recommend using seeds instead of fruit so that a specific quantity can be counted each day. Your main goal during this week for each farm is recording how deep the ants have dug, for each separate ant farm, not how much food was eaten all week. You can keep track of how much food you feed each farm, and the amount of food eaten can lead to more discussions later.
The final day will be for assessment and discussion of further question. You can give the students their quiz, collect the ant building assignments, and go over their graphs with them. It will take the whole class period to make sure you have answered their questions and collected everything.
The first major assessment tool is the graph of the two ant farms, comparing each day. These graphs should be 50% of their grade for this lesson. Make sure the students are updating the graph daily by connecting the dots to see how fast each ant farm is digging. This will help the children visually see how heat affects the ants and makes them move faster. An example is included on the right.
You can see if they learned how to read the graph by asking them to continue the graph onto a new graph sheet. Have them work on continuing the graph for a homework assignment. You can call on individual students to come forward and predict how far the ants would have dug the next day or several days after the lesson is over.
Give the students a simple fill in the blank quiz about which caste of ant is responsible for which task, and it also covers the different morphological traits. Next is a short true or false section. This quiz is to help assess their understanding of the life cycles and the ecosystems standards. The quiz can be 20% of their grade. An example is provided below.
Answer Key: A.C.C.B.A.C.C.B.C.C.T.F.F.T.T.
Divide the students into small groups of preferably 3 students. Have the first child tell their group one thing that they learned about a specific ant group (queen, worker, or male). The next child must describe something about a different caste. This will be worth 10%. The other students can record the answers from their peers. They should also list what they personally learned from the lesson in general, and what they thought was the most interesting fact or aspect of the study.
Have the students create an ant model at home for a fun assignment. This is worth just 10%. Give them the basic instructions (provided below) and ask them to make either a worker ant or a queen ant. Ask each student what is one main morphological difference between workers and queens (wings will be the easiest thing for the students to represent, instead of size). You could make the students all create queens and then see if they can change them into normal workers ants. This will test them on if they paid attention to the different features lecture.
The final 10% is for participation each day. Have different students feed the ants and another student measure the depth of the deepest ant tunnel. There should be more than enough opportunities for each student to help at least once. Keep track of questions they ask during the week. Make sure to address what the students want to learn about the ant colony.
1-3 Point Scale. 1=insufficient work
2=acceptable work 3=exemplary work
1-Did not complete graph.
2-Graph mostly completed. Very messy, hard to read.
3-Graph complete. Neat and easy to read.
1-8 or less right answers.
2-9 to 12 correct answers.
3-13 to 15 correct answers.
1-Refuses to talk with classmates.
2-One word answers given. Brief answers recorded.
3-Full length answers given and recorded on handout.
1-Ant not completed or missing several parts.
2-Ant created correctly, but the student can’t tell the difference between workers and queens.
3-Ant created correctly and the student can identify the worker and queen differences.
1-Refuses to help. Won’t feed or measure the ants’ depth.
2-Begrudgingly helps feed ants and measure. Does not ask any questions.
3-Volunteers to help with all aspects of ant care. Asks questions.
Questions for Future Discussions
You can take what the students learned and expand it to other insects by either talking more about insects’ social habits or about the way they build their nests. For example, let the students tell you what they learned about the queen ant and transition the talk into honey bees. Bees are very popular right now, and you can also relate the ant nests to bee hives.
You could give the students a handout with the directions for them to make their own ant farm. You don’t have to make it a homework assignment unless you want to, but this will be a good way to lead a discussion that re-enforces talking about the ants’ basic requirements for survival.
If you are moving away from insects and into larger animals, use the ants’ cold blooded features to move into reptiles or fish. The students will transition easier by going from one cold blooded animal to another. Have the students discuss ways that you taught them about ants keeping warm, and see if you can get them to give you the same ideas but adapted to a snake.
If you use dog treats for food, there should be a notable difference in how much was consumed between the two farms. Discuss with the students why the warmer ants ate more food. Relate it to how hungry they get after PE class. Explain that the warm ants were doing so much more work that they needed to replenish their energy stores.
Use the data from ants digging to discuss how a warmer climate could affect the ants, and how they could begin to disperse much more quickly.
Antkeepers, Caste System in Ant Society, (2018). Retrieved from https://www.antkeepers.com/facts/ants/caste-system-ant-societies/
Carolina, Ant Farm Replacement Ants, (2018). Retrieved from https://www.carolina.com/ants/ant-farm-replacement-ants-living/144528.pr?intid=jl_pdp&jl_ctx=on_site
Fire ant queens and workers ‘negotiate’ truce on colony sex ratio. (Aug. 16, 2001). Retrieved from https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2001-08/ncsu-faq081501.php
Freeman, Margot. (2018). How Deep Do Ants Nests Go? Retrieved from https://animals.mom.me/deep-ants-nests-go-5869.html
Hiller, Ilo. (1983). Warm- and Cold-Blooded Animals. Retrieved from https://tpwd.texas.gov/publications/nonpwdpubs/young_naturalist/animals/warm_and_cold_blooded_animals/
Humphreys, B. and McClintock, J. The Secret Life of Ants, (November 7, 2003). Retrieved from http://discovermagazine.com/2003/nov/the-secret-life-of-ants
Petsmart, Reptile Infrared Heat Lamp, (2018). Retrieved from https://www.petsmart.com/reptile/environmental-control-and-lighting/bulbs-and-lamps/zoo-medandtrade-nocturnal-reptile-infrared-heat-lamp-14824.html
Terminx, Ants:Winter Pests You Don’t Expect. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.terminix.com/pest-control/ants/behavior/do-ants-hibernate/
Terro. Where Do Ants Go in the Winter. (2018). Retrieved from http://www.terro.com/articles/where-have-all-the-ants-gone
The Secret of Royalty: Amazing Facts About Queen Ants. (2018) Retrieved from https://www.terro.com/articles/queen-ants
Thomson, Linda. Ant Farms For Beginners: Tips for Good Ant Care, (2018). Retrieved from https://www.toptenreviews.com/home/articles/ant-farms-for-beginners-tips-for-good-ant-care/
WikiHow, How to Build an Ant Farm, (2018). Retrieved from https://www.wikihow.com/Build-an-Ant-Farm
Zoo Med TH-10 High Range Thermometer for Terrariums, (2018). Retrieved from https://express.google.com/u/0/product/4703924375897929739_8307664967351568102_388047?utm_source=google_shopping&utm_medium=tu_cu&utm_content=eid-lsjeuxoeqt,eid-lcjybysgxm>im=CMvJ4Ljvs6mF5gEQmuvg9ffU3sUxGPCFYSIDVVNEKKCb2N8FMM_XFw&utm_campaign=388047&gclid=Cj0KCQiAlIXfBRCpARIsAKvManwCj5GJ4HO4GsF0OINjA9VPumHJWpxV26FWtKklEIQ9zBprfIn6jGsaAsvhEALw_wcB
Ant Caste System Quiz
Match the type of ant to its appropriate job or body characteristics.
Answers may be used multiple times.
_______ 1. Largest Ant in the ColonyA. QueenB. Male Ant
_______2. Takes Care of the Ant LarvaeC. Female Worker
_______3. Collects Food for the Colony
_______4. Mates with the Queen and then dies
_______5. Lays Eggs
_______6. The Most Numerous Ants in the Colony
_______7. Digs New Chambers for the Colony
_______8.Does Not Lay Eggs but Has Wings
_______9. Smallest Ants in the Colony
_______10. Can Not Reproduce
Mark T for True or F or False for the next 5 questions.
_______1. Ants work together for the good of the whole colony
_______2. Female workers and male ants raise the larvae together.
_______3. Ant colonies do not go very far into the ground.
_______4. Each room in the ant colony has a specific purpose.
_______5. Males and new queens fly off together to start new colonies.
Ant Farm Discussion
What was the best thing you learned about ants this week?
What did you and your fellow classmates at your table learn about ant types this week?
How to Build an Ant Farm with Soda Bottles
1. You will need a 2 liter bottle, a 1 liter bottle, and at least 2, if not more, 20 ounce bottles. Cut the tops off of the 2 liter and 1 liter bottles. You will fill the 20 ounce bottles with water about 3/4ths full and freeze them for later.
2. Glue the 1 liter bottle inside of the 2 liter bottle. There should be a little gap between the two bottles and this is where the ants will dig. You can use any glue that you like. Super glue works well. Once the dirt is in place, the one liter bottle won’t move anyway, so the glue is only needed while you put the dirt in place.
3. Place some saran wrap on the top of the 1 liter bottle to keep dirt from falling into the one liter bottle. Fill the gap between the two bottles with whatever substrate you are using. Loam, an even mixture of soil and sand, works very well. You can use plain sand or normal garden soil if that is easier.
4. You will then want to place a thick coat of Vaseline on the inside edge of the two liter bottle; this will help keep the ants from escaping. Now you are almost done with the first ant farm. You will use this first one for the warm ant farm. When you put the ants in you will need to put a lid on top of the two liter bottle. You can use saran wrap and a rubber band to seal it on tight. Make sure there are some small holes for air.
5. For the cold ant farm, follow all the same steps and make another farm except on this one you will want to cut the saran wrap off the top of the 1 liter bottle to make room for the frozen bottle. You will also want to put Vaseline all over the inside and outside of the top of the 1 liter bottle. This will prevent the ants from falling into the 1 liter bottle. That is the only extra modification that needs to be done on the cold ant farm.
6. Finally, to finish both ant farms, you will need to make marks in one inch increments so that the children will be able to measure how far the ants are digging each day. Also, you will need to attach the sticky thermometer to the outside of the ant farm so that you can monitor the temperature accurately.