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.
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.