Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on Wednesday, July 24, 2013.
This past school year, my son and I participated in the School of Ants project. Any adult, child or classroom can participate in this fun, educational project, and by doing so, you can help scientists collect data on ants that live in urban areas.
When I told my six-year-old about the project, he couldn’t wait to do it. All we had to do was collect some ants in our yard and send them to North Carolina State University where the scientists identified the ants and labeled a U.S. map, which you can view on their website. If you live in Florida, you’ll send your specimens to Dr. Andrea Lucky’s lab at the University of Florida. She heads this whole project.
The School of Ants has already helped scientists identify an invasive Asian needle ant in samples from New York, Wisconsin and Washington. Other rare species have been found too, such as the Bigfoot ant, which is North America’s rarest ant species. It had been discovered in the 1940s and never seen again until a North Carolina State University student found two of them under a rock outside his apartment. He took pictures of them and then released them, not knowing that they were so rare!
Though it’s easy to do the project, participants must make their own kit and pay for postage. You’ll need 8 3×5 index cards, 1 pen, 2 Pecan Sandies cookies, 8 1-quart zip-lock bags, 1 1-gallon zip lock bag, and 1 envelope plus postage for submitting your kit. You’ll also need to sacrifice some ants.
My son and I took four of the notecards and labeled them “green.” These had to go on a lawn, garden or forest about one foot apart. We left a quarter of a cookie on each card for one hour in the woods beside our house.
On the other four notecards, we wrote “paved.” These had to go on a paved surface for one hour, so we put those on our driveway. After an hour, we were instructed to quickly dump the card, cookie and any ants we collected into a separate plastic bag.
The cards we left in the woods had plenty of ants on them, but the cards on the pavement only had a few tiny ants. They were just beginning to find the cookies.
We collected what we found and put all the baggies into one big gallon-size bag, and then put them into the freezer overnight. Supposedly, this is a humane way of killing the ants.
We had to fill out a small form, register our kit online and get a confirmation code, which we mailed with the ants.
When we did the project, I read that we would be e-mailed within a few weeks about our ants. We never received an e-mail, and it took several months, but we finally found our ants listed on the School of Ants website. According to their site, we found three different species. The two in the woods were common ants, but the tiny ants in our driveway were not so common, so there’s not much known about them. Pretty cool, huh?
I asked my son if he’d like to try to find those ants again and observe them for a while. Perhaps we can make a small contribution to science. My son was excited about that, so maybe we’ll try it. That is, if we can find them again.
If you’d like to participate in the School of Ants project, go to www.schoolofants.org to get detailed instructions and additional information.
Come back on Thursday when I post a letter from the School of Ants answering my question, “Why is it important to study ants?”