Ant Farm v4, Day 1


I spent a lot of my childhood in the company of ants. There is a big cable/electrical box complex in front of the house I grew up in where I would spend days playing with my little formic friends, narrowly avoiding dangerous wires. While it seemed like the height of interest for most kids was burning ants with a magnifying glass, I can’t remember ever doing that. Instead, I interested myself in their social aspects. How they, as a society, organized their tunnel system and reacted with certain stimuli.

Don’t get me wrong; what I subject the little critters to was every bit as cruel as a focused pinpoint of sunlight. But, my versions (ant team deathmatches, dropping ants from opposing colonies on each others’ colony hills, floods, digging into their chambers) spawned from a different spirit. So much that cruelty wasn’t even a question, any more than it was cruel to stomp a Goomba. Which is the point. Ants, to me, were fun interactive AI programs in the physical world. I thought of them much like a real time strategy game. And, with that, I am still completely fascinated by them.

So, I’m having another go at it, calling it version 4. Version 1 and 2 happened nearly 20 years ago. With a store bought kit I populated an ant farm which made complex tunnels until I made it rain too much and drowned them. Those that didn’t drown started growing mold and eventually died. The next attempt just didn’t work at as well as the first and I never even got a chance to screw it up. Ultimately, I lacked the maturity to see it through another time.

Fast forward to last year, the summer of ’04. Stores don’t sell ant farms like they used to. Between DC and Baltimore, I couldn’t find anywhere to buy a satisfactory ant farm. The only one I did find was at a science store in Columbia, which farm was so juvenile I couldn’t consider using it. Luckily, the father of my girlfriend at the time never throws anything away and had a homemade one from years past. But, unfortunately, I lived in the city which meant finding suitable ants was a real pain. Hence, v3 quickly halted.

Later I did find this Space Age Antfarm from ThinkGeek which features a gel developed by NASA which acts as both habitat and food for ants. But, as cool as that looks, I hate dropping money on something that I don’t really have to.

Fast forward to a couple days ago. I got inspired, out of the blue, to try again. Finding 2 14×11″ glass panes that my mom took from some picture frames, I quickly cut, grooved, nailed, drilled and silicone sealed my way to a homemade ant farm, picture in full above. The dark sand is from the light rain I gave it, just to start the ground.

You’ll notice a tube going from the side into a cheap, pasta sauce-stained tupperware container.

side holes tube ant insertion/feeding chamber

This innovation comes from the experience of how hard it is to insert and feed ants from the thin slot on the top of an ant farm. Beyond that, my slot isn’t readily removed, since it consists of a taped-on strip of cardboard with pin holes for air exchange. The side chamber is thus a feeding and insertion chamber. It can easily be removed, cleaned and replaced, and with a wide top, inserting food and ants won’t be a hassle. Undoubtedly, when I inserted 20 ants collected today from Mr. and Mrs. Gray’s yard, a good 5 didn’t make it from the jar to the feeding/insertion chamber. Good thing it’s detachable and allowing this to happen outside, instead of making me fear eventual ant revenge during the night.

The concern is that the ants will stay in the feeding/insertion chamber and won’t ever tunnel in the main chamber. We’ll have to wait and see what happens, but some have already started to huddle in the main chamber. I don’t expect the ants to start digging until a few days anyway.

ant huddle

20 thoughts on “Ant Farm v4, Day 1

  1. I love the f-ant-astically engineered and excuted device. All of those formative years of making spaceships out of cereal boxes have served you well!

  2. Cool. As a kids my brother and I tried to make a few ant farms, but they mostly consisted of dirt in glass jars. And since the glass jar wasn’t very thin (like a typical ant farm) you really couldn’t see if things were progressing too well.

    By stark contrast your ant farm really looks pretty well thought out and put together. Especially with that staging area and connecting tube.

    From your successes I take it the ants form a small colony of some sort even without a queen to take care of? I’d always wondered about that. Or can you get ant queens somewhere? If you get ants from different colonies do they seem to fight or do they just assimilate with the group?

  3. Queen ants are, from what I understand, illegal to ship in the US. I’m going to guess it has to do with introducing species where they shouldn’t be, like how they check your car for fruit when you drive to California. I’ve only ever heard of people just digging them up but there’s got to be venders somewhere. Heh, maybe there’s a queen ant black market.

    A queenless group of ants will dig and live normally but die after several months, which is longer than I plan to stay in the country. Really, I wouldn’t want the committment of a queen. Not just yet. But, yes, getting ants from different colonies will smell different and thus register as hostile. That’s why I wanted to find an ant hill where I know I can find them from the same colony. With the heavy rains early this summer, I think all the hills in my parents’ yard got washed away and the Gray’s yard is the only area I could find one. Still, anything here is better than the city.

    As you and Mrs. Gray noted, this has been a long time comming. Fingers are crossed.

  4. You bastard! Stealing ants from our yard!!!

    Hope your ant farm thrives. It’s looking like a clever design so far. I wouldn’t mind taking some pictures of them once they’re really going.

    Speaking of pictures, whose digital camera?

  5. Looks great. I too had several attempts at ant farms when I was younger. Would you mind maybe sending me some detailed plans for the one you’ve made? I have a 5 year old son that I know would just freak out over the whole idea of a ant farm. He is a true boy and loves ants bugs and anything that wiggles, crawls, and flys.

  6. Hey, Deemiester, sorry for a late reply. There isn’t much to the blueprints of the ant farm I made. Just find 2 identical pieces glass (or, more expensively, plexiglass) and put wood around them. Making groves is a really, really important thing because my pieces of glass popped out and spilled dirt. It all ended with me trying to use C-Clamps to hold the glass in and thus me cracking that glass. Perhaps nailing in little blocks of wood as stops would have worked better.

    Either way, just remember to pack the dirt down well (while filling it up, just smack the bottom of the ant farm), because, if you don’t, the dirt can collapse while your ants are trying to dig.

    Hope you find this and good luck!

  7. I am trying to build an ant farm now. what type of food do the ants eat? How deep in the ant tunnels can you find a queen ant?

  8. Wow, this looks awsome. Im making an antfarm at the moment, but its one made from plaster of paris.

  9. Michael: Thanks. PoP is a great idea. Maybe I’ll try that next.

    JP: Ants eat just about anything. You’re going to want to make sure they get their main food groups of sugars, starches and protein. Milk is good but goes bad fast. Honey, crackers and dead bugs are pretty much all they need I think.

    Queens shouldn’t be any deeper than a foot for small colonies, maybe a foot and a half.

  10. Thanks for the help. can you answer one more question? can i use regular sand for the ant farm?

  11. Yes, any sand will work, but the bigger the grains the better. Thinner sand has a higher chance of caving in and the ants will take more trips to build tunnels. I think anything will be fine, but if you use thinner sand, be sure to pack it well before putting your ants in.

  12. Dick, You sound like you know what you are doing. I’m a commercial playground designer in California working on the outdoor learning environments. I had an idea about an interior project called the Ants go Marching. Post back to this blog if you are still here. If anyone else knows ants like Dick knows ants please also post and reply. I will check back soon.

  13. Hello, I know this is a few years later, but my boyfriend made me a really big ant farm, as he knows i love ants, but im scared to buy some because I heard if you cant keep it humid, the sand will dry and the tunnels will colapse, killing the ants… As i mentioned, its a pretty big ant farm, and I dont have a clue how im going to wet it all without drowning them !! Any help will be appriciated

  14. Hi Katie. I don’t think keeping it humid is a huge issue., but having it a little humid from the start will help glue all of the sand together. The other big factor is how compact you can get the sand when you first put it in.

    I suggest dampening the sand before putting it in. Either in a bucket or in something like a Ziplock bag. It doesn’t have to be really damp. Aim for how damp real dirt is if you took a shovel straight down into it. Then, when you start putting in the sand, shake it down by knocking the bottom of the farm on a table, or push the sand down lightly from the top.

    Good luck!

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