The Plastic Menagerie


Thirty new pets joined our household recently.  Daniel got an ant farm for Christmas.  However, we held off on filling it with ants until a few weeks ago.  I never had an ant farm as a child.  I assumed you gathered ants from outside… or inside if you happened to be so fortunate.  The instruction manual expressly forbids this practice.  Instead we ordered our ants by mail.  The standard shipping and handling of an ant order takes about six to twelve weeks, or slightly longer than the average ant is expected to live.  If we wanted to guarantee our ants would be alive upon delivery – well, that was extra.

The ants showed up in a manila envelope.  Inside the ants were in a clear plastic tube surrounded by a custom cut sheet of soft plastic.  I have to admit our harvester ants are quite a bit bigger than their sidewalk dwelling cousins.  They are about half an inch long and colored brown instead of black.

The ant farms I remembered back in the twentieth century looked like a double paned window filled with dirt.  No more.  Instead, Daniel’s ant farm was filled with a translucent blue gel.  We actually have NASA to thank for this advancement in ant farm technology.  According to the literature that comes with the ant farm, NASA discovered that normal ant tunnels made in dirt would collapse when launched on the Space Shuttle.  They developed this gel substance that contains water for the ants plus all the nutrients they require.  Since it is see-through, Daniel’s ant farm is a couple of inches thick and the ants can not only tunnel up and down, but also in three dimensions.

Daniel pre-drilled some holes in the gel for the ants.  They soon got the hang of it and tunneled all through the gel.  The lowest level is apparently a sleep chamber.  Believe it or not, ants actually sleep.  They parallel park along the side of the tunnel and their little antennae stop moving.  We thought they were dead at first, but dead ants get carried out of the tunnel and left on the surface.  They made some larger tunnels and some little side chambers.  One of these became a bathroom for the ants.  It’s colored brown instead of blue. 

I never really thought about the entertainment potential of ant farms.  I assumed it was pretty low and any hype on the box was marketing.  However, we’ve all taken turns watching the ants work their way through the gel.  I took some video, of course.  Meka moved the ant farm to our kitchen table and Daniel even gave up watching television to stare at the ants as they carried bits of gel out of the tunnels and placed them around their entry holes like a space age ant hill.

We don’t have a queen in our ant farm (queens are available for additional cost), so we can expect our ants to last a couple of months.  Already Meka has had to pluck an ant corpse off the gel.  I have to admit I will miss the little buggers when they’re gone.

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