As a young naturalist, someone once told me that ants are to the prairie as worms are to a garden: they move soil and nutrients around and keep the top- and sub-soil layers healthy. I’ve shared this analogy with many students since that time, but never really dug any deeper. Last month’s blog post on prairies got me thinking about the depth of ecosystem intricacies in the prairie, and the role each species plays in creating a balance. I figured it was time to find out more.

Ants are, along with bees and wasps, members of the Order Hymenoptera (meaning membrane wing), this much I knew. I also knew about the prairie ant’s ability to build very large mounds. Some at Nature Net Headquarters are as large as an abandoned tire – and others can be upwards of four feet in diameter and two feet tall, extending just as deep underground. To start my knowledge gathering, I searched my favorite Wisconsin bug writer’s blog: Riveredge Nature Center’s Bug of the Week. The Bug Lady, as she calls herself, had of course written about these prairie ants and had them identified by staff at the Mississippi Entomological Museum as Formica montana, the prairie mound ant. This is one of the most common ants in Wisconsin. Their colonies can survive many years with a queen, several thousand sterile female workers, and a few male drones. Here’s more from the Bug Lady:

Mounds are formed when ants tunnel into the soil and bring particles to the surface to dispose of them; ants move more dirt than earthworms and are valuable soil mixers and turners.  Young mounds are steep-sided and about 12 to 15 inches tall, and they often have vegetation on top.  As the population increases, the ants build out because, in wetlands, they can’t build down.  One source said that a large mound might have 6,000 ants in it, but the BugLady thinks that number is way low for some of the mega-mounds at CESA [Cedarburg Environmental Study Area].  The tops of [the] mounds may have fifty or more entrances, and the mounds themselves consist of a honeycomb of tunnels and chambers for food and young and for workers to rest in, and the tunnels also affect oxygen exchange.

The earthworm analogy is confirmed by the Bug Lady, as well as in a Michigan Natural Communities: Mesic Sand Prairie description that states, “ants, particularly the genus Formica, play an important role in mixing and aerating prairie soils as they continually build and abandon mounds, overturning large portions of prairie soil in the process.”

You can read the Bug Lady’s full article here which also includes a note that these ants, like several other species, “farm” aphids for the sweet honeydew that is exuded from their abdomens. The first farmers on earth…read on for more ant ingenuity.

Did you know…

Ants can communicate by touching/smelling one another with their antenna. With a simple touch, they can determine if they have met a nest mate, and what task that ant had recently undertaken. Deborah Gordon, a biology professor at Stanford, has studied ants for many years and likens their systematic means of communication and organization to those of internet algorithms. She believes that many of nature’s solutions, particularly those without central control (like an ant colony), can and do inspire human solutions. Take a listen to this segment of Ted Talk Radio Hour:

The study of ants is called Myrmecology. There are about 12,500 known species of ants in the world (although scientists predict there are over 22,000 total species); only about 50 live in Wisconsin.

Scientists at Georgia Tech have been studying ants and the “rules” of ant tower building:

To Do This Month:

Be a part of creating our community at the Imagine Madison Community Meeting at Lussier Community Education Center, Tuesday, October 24, 2017 – 6-8pm. This meeting will prioritize strategies to improve the community, allow you to suggest actions to accomplish these strategies, and help prioritize where growth should occur in Madison.

Hayrides and Hikes at Cherokee Marsh, October 21st 1-4pm: Tour Cherokee Marsh on a tractor-pulled hay wagon, take a short guided hike, or do both! Plus enjoy free hot cider and marshmallows to roast on the fire. Hayrides are $3/person (age 2 and under free) to offset the cost of Parks staff time. Volunteers from the Friends of Cherokee Marsh will lead free, short nature hikes. No reservations needed. Show up anytime from 1pm to 3:30 pm for a hayride or a hike.

Halloween Hayrides at the Capitol Square, October 25th 3-6pm: An afternoon of Halloween family fun at Downtown Madison Family Halloween By clicking this link, you will be leaving the City of Madison website.! Take a haywagon ride around the Capitol Square.

Fall Fest at ALNC, October 27th 5:30-7:30pm: Join Fall Fest and celebrate “Creatures of the Night” – the Aldo Leopold Nature Center’s annual fun-filled night of spooky activities in not-so-scary style! With activities indoors and out, there is plenty of free fall fun for the whole family to enjoy.

Halloween at The ZOO, October 29th 9:30am-3pm: Dress up as your favorite goblin, ghoul or witch and head to the Zoo for a safe alternative to trick or treating. Halloween at the Zoo is a celebration for the entire community that includes free trick-or-treating, a fun activity tent, and much more!

Check out the Nature Net Calendar of Events for more fun family programs.

Lussier Heritage Center

Ant Picnic

Our Favorite Ant Books

October Events

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For Educators:

The Compass to Nature

Developed by the US Fish & Wildlife Service, The Compass to Nature is an instructional guide designed especially for teachers who want to get their students outdoors. This free resource uses the four cardinal directions of Place, Phenology, Naturalists, and Journals to demonstrate simple and applicable ideas for “arousing an emotional connection and fascination with nature.” Each section describes why each “direction” is important, and offers approaches for educators, including Top 10 Field Activities, suggested books and readings, and step-by-step directions for getting started. The program was field-tested by real teachers and includes sample photos of students in action. Here’s a snapshot of the Compass to Nature philosophy:

Compass Direction



Place Where I Teach Teaching outside my door in my local environment as often as possible
Phenology What I Teach About & When I Teach it Teaching about local nature according to nature’s calendar
Naturalists Who I Teach About Using people who enjoy nature as role models for behavior
Journals How I Teach Interdisciplinary, integrated, hands-on, reflective

For Families:

Only for the Brave

One more bit of ant lore that was shared with me long ago: if you lick the end of a carpenter ant, it will shock your tongue and taste like lemon. I’ve done this and a few brave students have as well (really, there’s no better fourth-grade bragging right than that!). But sifting out the truth of the how and why of this particular method of “creating a sense of wonder” was a bit harder to nail down. A simple google search with the words “ant, lick, shock, tongue” does yield some results – though, they are mostly for the Amazonian lemon ant or the Australian weaver ant (or the science of licking a 9-volt battery). I had been told that ants create a citrus-like scent trail for other ants to follow and that that, along with the formic acid many ants use as defense, is what causes the reaction on your tongue. Formic acid, it turns out, is also found in stinging nettles and, according to Owlcation, is “dangerous at high concentrations, but at low concentrations it’s very useful. Humans use formic acid as a food preservative, since it’s an antibacterial substance. It’s also used to treat pests, to produce food and cosmetic additives and to help a variety of industrial processes to occur.”

Of course, there’s plenty of information out there about going further than licking ants, and eating them. In a National Geographic article entitled, “UN Urges Eating Insects: 8 Popular Bugs to Try,” ants make the list at number four: “You’re probably thinking that it takes a lot of ants to make a meal. True. But they pack a punch: 100 grams of red ant (one of thousands of ant species) provide some 14 grams of protein (more than eggs), nearly 48 grams of calcium, and a nice hit of iron, among other nutrients. All that in less than 100 calories. Plus, they’re low in carbs.”

So, whether you want to start out easy with a mere lick, or go for a full entomophagy experience, ants can provide an easy-to-find subject of taste exploration. I double-dog dare you.

Betsy bylineCopy of Betsy bylineBetsy Parker is an environmental educator who supports all children, families, and classrooms getting their recommended daily allowance of #VitaminN.
Funding for Nature Net and the Nature Net News blog is provided by American Girl Fund for Children.