Monday, April 2, 2012


Science Experiment: Changing Ants Colors!

Ant experiments are loads of fun and perfect for spring and summer time!  This unique experiment is totally safe for both your kiddos and the ants too!

Click on this picture.  About half the ants actually have green gasters (the large part of their abdomen).  Go ahead...take a look!

Ghost ants (Tapinoma melanocephalum) can be a nuisance, but outside they can also provide hours of educational opportunities.  My daughter discovered a line of them busy carrying brood, and the other kids quickly gathered around.  As we talked about things ants eat, I decided to let them experiment with feeding them.  Ghost ants are particularly fun because their pale yellow/milky white gaster is partially translucent--you can see right through it!  My kids had so much fun feeding the ants and turning them green that they wanted to try red!  Yes, feeding ghost ants colored sugar water makes them look like they changed colors!  And the best part is that you already have the supplies at home!  It's the perfect ant experiment!

Simple Supplies:
  • water
  • sugar
  • food coloring (dark colors like blue show up better than red)
  • spoon or dropper 
  • ghost ants (preferably outside!)

The Easy How-To:

1.  Make your colored sugar water in a cup by mixing about 1/4 cup water, 2-3 Tablespoons sugar, and 4-5 drops of food coloring together.  Stir well.  If some sugar settles in the bottom of the cup, that's okay.  Just make sure you dissolve as much as possible.

2.  Spoon or drop about 1 spoonful of the colored sugar water very close to a trail of ghost ants.  We put ours on a brick about an inch away from the ant trail.  In the more recent pictures, I put a drop on a piece of white paper close to a trail of ants.

3.  Wait and watch closely!  Your ant experiment takes a few minutes to get started because the ants need to find the sugar water.  Also, ghost ants are only about 1.5 mm long, so you have to watch very closely to see what happens.  After they start drinking the colored sugar water, it only takes about a minute for their gasters to change colors!

A Few Talking Points for Preschoolers:

Note: Many of these points compare ghost ants with fire ants.  If you live in the South, most preschoolers can tell you quite a bit about fire ants.  If you don't have fire ants in your area, compare the ghost ants to other ants your child is familiar with!

* Ghost ants like to eat things that are sweet (like sugar water and sap) and things that have a lot of protein (like dead bugs).
* After an ant eats finds the sugar water, it tells other ants by touching antennas. Can you see them "talking?"
* Fire ants have a dark gaster, and ghost ants have a dark head.  You can see through the ghost ant's gaster.
* Where does the water go when the ghost ant drinks it?  (To its can see the color!)
* Fire ant workers come in many sizes, but ghost ant workers are all the same size.
* Fire ants bite and sting.  Ghost ants do not.
* Older children may appreciate knowing that ants have two stomachs in their gaster: a crop (where they can store sugar water and regurgitate it later for larvae or other ants) and a second stomach that processes food for themselves.  Food can move from the crop to the second stomach.

The University of Florida has a great information page about ghost ants.  There are also many other resources about them and Fire Ants online.

More Activities:
See what ideas your child has and what he wants to learn.  There are loads of ant experiments you can safely and kindly do!  Support your little scientist as they try new things.  Here are some ideas:

* Follow the trail and find the nest.
* Put out other "foods" and see which the ants like best.
* Try several colors and see if there is a preference.
* Draw a map showing the nest and the ant trails.
* What happens if you put out solid food?  Do the ants eat it or carry it away?
* Carefully place a few ghost ants in a glass container and a few ants of another species in a different glass container.  Compare and contrast them.  Gently release them when you are done.

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I may share at any of these parties!


Jen said...

what a neat experiment, I have never seen ghost ants before, I don't think they have them here...what fun!

Carla at Preschool Powol Packets said...

Jen, there are some parts of the country that don't have them...yet! There's a lot of evidence that they are spreading! They are definitely common in the South!

Brooke said...

So cool, I wish we had these around our part of the country. I've never seen them before.

Alison @ Oopsey Daisy said...

Great ideas! I love doing science projects. My Little Man has a fear of ants right now, so maybe learning more about them might help! :) Thanks for sharing at oopsey daisy!

izza said...

Nice post. My kids would probably love this kind of activity. Have your child experience the Montessori Environment. They'll probably learn a lot.

Trisha @ Inspiration Laboratories said...

We enjoying observing ants all the time. I've actually never heard of ghost ants. If I can find any around here, we'll definitely have to try this. Thanks for sharing!

Deb Chitwood said...

What an amazing experiment! Thanks so much for linking up with Montessori Monday. I featured your post at the Living Montessori Now Facebook page and pinned it to my Insect Unit Study Pinterest board at Happy Easter!

Monica said...

I am sorry but I think it is kind of sad..I wonder how the chemicals in the food coloring affects the ants..

Carla at Preschool Powol Packets said...

They are cool, Brooke!

Thanks, Alison! I was looking at another insect with my 1-1/2 year old son and I asked him if he wanted to hold it and he emphatically said, "No!" I think they all have their moments!

Thanks, Izza! I love the Montessori principles and look forward to checking out your link!

There are so many different kinds of ants, Tricia! We love exploring them too!

Thanks so much for sharing it, Deb! I love your blog and Facebook page and feel honored to be featured!

Monica, I'm glad you stopped by and commented. I actually have a degree in Biology and spent a considerable amount of time studying ants in college. The food coloring is food grade and is harmless to the ants, just like it is harmless to humans. Ants eat food with food coloring in it all the time. Also, I would point out we are not painting the ants (which Biologists have actually done and learned a lot from), but observing colored water inside them through their translucent gasters. Finally, I can report that the same colony is alive, well, and the workers are no longer green. ;) I understand if it still bothers you, but hopefully this will help you feel better. ;) Thanks again for stopping by!

Charlene@APinchofJoy said...

You are featured this week on Busy Monday at A Pinch of Joy! Hope you will stop by and grab a Featured Button. Can’t wait to see what other project you’ve been working on — hope you will link again soon!

Carla at Preschool Powol Packets said...

Yay! Thanks Charlene!! I love Busy Monday!!

Trish - Mom On Timeout said...

Wow! What a fun experiment! My boys would go crazy for something like this :) Thanks so much for sharing at Mom On Timeout!

Jane said...

Wow! I so love this activities. How could I ever missed this! My kids will surely love this experiment

JP said...

Ghost ants have become a nuisance here at home. I mixed blue dye with sugar and 1% boric acid. They will bring into the nest as a poison for the fungus which they feed. In the end all will die blue.

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Perla Hernandez said...

Awesome! I do want to try this with my preschoolers. Thanks for posting.

Jennifer Tammy said...

Carla, I think it's amazing that you are acknowledging the objections -- this is an amazing experiment that children stand to learn a lot from!

Carla Jansen said...

Perla, let us know how it goes!

Thanks Jennifer! It is amazing...for both the kids and adults! And I feel like if people really understand the science, there isn't anything to object to. 😀

Charen Narain said...

Does this only work with ghost ants

Charen Narain said...

Do you really have to do that��