In Search of a Queen Ant

IMG_3709Last fall my son developed an interest in starting his own colony of ants.

I began thinking ant farm. He began correcting me.

Starting your own colony is an entirely different ball game than scooping up ants and watching them create tunnels throughout gel or sand. This venture required a queen.

Okay. I began looking for places to order a queen for an ant farm.

Oh, no. He informs me you can’t order queen ants because it is illegal to sell them across state lines. You know, the whole invasive species thing.

Okay, how exactly do you get a queen?

You wait for them to swarm and then collect one.

Great! When will that happen?


Okay. It’s fall, so I shelve this idea thinking he will loose interest.

Along comes Christmas and when he gives me his wish list he has clearly written on it: Formicarium. Camponotus Hybrid Nest from Ants Canada. I have no idea what this is. He tells me it is for his ant colony he is going to start in the spring.



Oh, that. I’d already forgotten about that. When his grandmother asks for ideas for gifts, I pitch her this one. She raises an eyebrow but decided to get it if he’d be excited. When it came, it was tiny. My mother and I looked at each other an thought we were going to be sorry about this, I mean, he didn’t even have any way to use it until spring. But he was thrilled when he saw it. He made a space for it in his room and it sat there for months.

Just when I thought he had forgotten about ants, the weather warmed and he began mentioning them again. He started carrying a test tube and stopper around in case he found any queen ants. I asked him how to find them.

They swarm in the spring when it’s warm enough and it’s rained enough. It’s most likely in May, but you never know. A colony only swarms once every couple of years for a few hours. Oh, and you can’t grab a queen as she leaves the nest, you have to wait until she has her nuptial flight so she can mate. Once she’s done that, she’ll drop to the ground and find a place to set up her nest. That’s when you can get her: the small window of time after she falls from the sky and lands on the ground and before she finds a hole to set up her colony.


Oh, man. This kid had been planning for this for months! What if he didn’t find one? Surely there had to be a way to up our odds of finding one. Surely there had to be someone who knew a trick or two about this. Some alert system I could register for?


So, last Saturday, as we unloaded groceries from the car,  I hear my daughter ask Zach if the bug that landed on her was a queen ant.



Carpenter ants

It flew off immediately, but that didn’t deter my son. He bolted around the house and discovered a swarming colony of carpenter ants! Coming from the casing of my window. Talk about mixed feelings.

He took an ant from the swarm, knowing that she had not mated yet, but he could use her as a control queen. We then walked around the house and surrounding neighborhood looking for queens. We ended up catching two who look like great candidates.

So why catch the unmated queen? Because she still has eggs and they will still hatch. The difference is her ants will be males and will not set up a colony. Only fertile queens lay females that can begin a colony. Who knew? (well, I guess he did)



Set-up for a queen

He set the queens up in a test tube with water on one end blocked by a cotton ball, then the  queen ant, then another cotton ball. He labeled the test tubes and placed them in a drawer so they will settle down and lay eggs. He can’t check on them much or the queen may eat her eggs. That would be extremely disappointing. This step will last for a few more weeks until they are ready to move into the formicarium. At that point he will set up a terrarium for feeding and he will finally be able to interact with his colony. I can honestly say he is a more patient being than I am.

He has recently contacted a local entomologist, Dr. Steve Murphree from Belmont University who has been wonderfully encouraging to him. He recommended the book Journey to the Ants by Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson. He’s really enjoying it.

People like my son don’t always get the recognition they deserve for their patience and persistence. They often stand in the shadows of others who are quicker thinkers or stronger competitors. Their victories are built slowly and methodically, but what they can accomplish is amazing! Our world doesn’t always give them the full recognition they deserve.







Science Fair


Third place in chemistry.

“What is our goal for this year?”

I’m getting nervous, so I ask this question to settle my own excitement as much as to remind the kids not to let the spirit of competition ruin their experience.

“To just enter and see what it is all about.”

“I would say we met that goal. Anything else that happens today is a bonus!”

I am so proud of these kids from my homeschool chemistry class. We didn’t stumble upon the Middle Tennessee Science and Engineering Fair (MTSEF) until it was almost too late to do anything about it. Almost.

I scope out the competition and feel confident that in spite of the rush to get everything done, their projects are at least as good as the majority of the other entries. However, there are always those few that stand out.

I notice my group collecting around a professionally printed poster with Vanderbilt University’s logo prominently displayed in the corner. The project is on cancer research and the list of scientists at the top tells me this student was working as an assistant in their research labs.

My students look intimidated.

“Look at this one, mom. Ours are nothing like this.” She can’t help herself. She is competitive to the core.

“Ah, this is a poster for a research project they are doing at Vanderbilt. I’m sure it is the same one the professors use when they present their research at poster sessions. But it still needs to have everything yours does. Where is the abstract?” A requirement for the fair.

“Is that it? It isn’t clear.” She looks critically at the poster.

“And how many people worked on this project?”

“A lot.” Seeing the string of names across the top.

“What do you think the professors had the high schoolers doing in their lab? Do you think they designed their own experiments? Or wrote this information themselves? Probably not. They were assistants. They probably did lots of little things like run samples and wash a lot of glassware. I hope they can answer all the questions the judges ask.”

They look a little relieved.

“Still,” I add, to be fair, “it is a great experience these kids have had to work in a top notch laboratory. I’m sure they learned a lot. But any of you here could do this type of work too.”

I left them standing by their posters ready for the judges and went outside to talk with the other exiled parents and grandparents as we waited. These are the types of things I really wanted for my kids when we began homeschooling seven years ago. It is so much work to get everything done and turned in on time, but the reassurance that they can stand shoulder to shoulder with their peers and compete makes it worth it.

I jotted down notes for next year: Have their papers out for the judges to see. Larger sample sizes. Provide a section on the science used to prove the kids understand it. Add more graphics and data analysis. I wondered if they would even want to do this again. It had been a lot of work and they might feel dispirited after being questioned by judges. They finally came out, looking exhausted but upbeat. It looks like the science fair adventure was a success.

We didn’t do badly! Of the three projects we entered this year, two placed first in their categories and one placed third. The kids learned a lot and came back with lots of ideas on how to improve their projects for next year. Yes, I think we definitely met our goals!


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