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(WARNING: There are close-up pictures of ants in this post.  If that’s a problem, you might want to skip this one.)

(Also, be sure to read the “Steps to Add Ants” below – it’s my favorite part!)

I love ant farms and I’m not sure why.  I had one once as a kid but no other significant, long-term experiences which would explain my current fondness.  I teach 5-year olds. My first year I decided that an ant farm would be a fun thing to have for the kids to observe.  Four years later, I still have an ant farm and ant unit every year.  I use the same “farm” each year.  After the colony expires, I clean it out ready to start fresh the next year.

I bought my farm from Amazon.  It comes with a certificate to get live ants from, are you ready? Ants Alive! Each year I order ants and sand to replenish.

Preparing the ant farm

ant farm ready to fill with sand
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Here’s the ant farm, upside down and ready to be filled with sand.

In this picture, the farm is upside down on the kitchen counter.  I added bits of paper towel to block the holes.  The bamboo skewer is an excellent tool to reach down into the farm.  The holes come blocked when you first buy the farm.  After that you will need to add your own temporary plugs.  Also I’d like to note that the bottom (on top in this picture – upside down, remember?) is see-through.  I put a blanket behind the farm so you wouldn’t be distracted by the messy house in the background.

ant farm filled with sand
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Sand has been added! Ready to add water.
a little water has been added to sand in ant farm
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A couple teaspoons of water have been added. It will gradually disperse.
water is dispersing into sand of ant farm
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Slowly the water is dispersing. Add a bit more water.
ants in tube in front of ant farm
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At this point I will leave it overnight. If there are dry spots in the morning I will add more water. In the foreground are the seeds, ants in a tube, and instructions that come along with the sand.

Here you can see the tube of ants that come in the mail along with a packet of seeds and a note warning you not to touch the ants because they can sting you.  Funny story – we didn’t read this note the first year until AFTER we had chased and caught bare-handed several escaping ants.  Luckily we were not stung!  I bet you wish you could’ve been there for that very entertaining scene! Even now we laugh when we think about how crazy it was trying to get the ants into the farm that night. Don’t worry though – I’m more experienced now.  Below are several tips for an easier transfer from tube to farm.

ant farm with paper funnel
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Paper funnel has been made and we’re ready to add ants!

Here we are the next morning, ready to add the ants right before school.  The ants spent the night in the chilly pantry room then I put them into the refrigerator about 20-30 minutes before I was ready to add them.  Notice I no longer add the ants in the kitchen.  I move the farm outside before adding ants.  That way any potential escapees are not loose in the house.  See, this old dog can learn new tricks!

looking through funnel into ant farm
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Looking down through the funnel. Can you see the hole that leads to the sand down below?

Okay, the moment we’ve all been waiting for – adding the ants to the ant farm!  See below for my detailed instructions.

Steps to add ants:

  1. Chill the ants.
  2. Chill them more.
  3. Keep chilling… (I’m not kidding about this!)
  4. Make paper funnel.
  5. Insert funnel into the farm, leaving a space above the shelf so they can’t reach the paper to crawl back out.
  6. Double check the opening at the bottom to be sure it’s wide enough they can fall all the way through.
  7. Feel your heart starting to race as you remember the ant wrangling experiences of years past.
  8. Try not to freak out.
  9. Deep yoga breaths to calm down.
  10. Remove ants from refrigerator.
  11. Check that they are not moving.  Remember – slow but not dead.
  12. Open the vial and pour them in.
  13. Blow into the funnel to get the strays down and out of the funnel, into the farm.
  14. Realize that ants are very strong and you can’t blow hard enough.  The Big Bad Wolf might not even be strong enough to blow them through the funnel!
  15. Cover the vial before the ones still inside it can climb out.
  16. Run back inside to get your poking stick. Put the vial back in the refrigerator.  Ants must be COLD! I can’t risk them warming up while I’m dealing with these two trouble makers.
  17. Poke the two attempted escapees down into the farm.
  18. Go back and try to find the ant vial amongst the condiments.  Where did I put it?!
  19. More deep breaths.
  20. In one final fell swoop, dump the remaining ants into the funnel and poke them with the stick.
  21. Take a step back in amazement.  The ants are in the farm.  All of them!  For the first time in 4 years I got them all in without any escapees or deaths.
  22. More deep breaths to counter-act the adrenaline rush brought on by early morning ant wrangling.
  23. Take a picture and post on Facebook so all your family and friends will be impressed by your superior ant wrangling skills.


ants inside ant farm
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Done! All the ants are now inside the ant farm! Next stop, my classroom!

And a close-up view of our little friends…

ants inside ant farm
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Close-up of our new residents

I cannot emphasize enough that the ants need to be cold and therefore sluggish.  It makes the whole process a lot easier. Though as Ryan pointed out, there is a fine line between slow and not dead.  I just want them to get into that farm and stay there without having to chase them. I even wrote myself a note after the second year that said “No, really.  The ants MUST BE COLD! 15 minutes in the frig is NOT long enough!”  This is the year that I finally listened!

Progress Updates:

ant farm with tunnels
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Progress after about 24 hours. They’ve been very busy!
ant farm with many tunnels
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After about a week.

The ants are mesmerizing to watch.  I like to sit and watch them for a few minutes when I first come to school.  The classroom is quiet. No one but me and my little ant friends.  It’s relaxing – like watching fish in an aquarium, in my opinion.

They don’t last forever

Just wanted to warn any potential ant farmers out there that these ants won’t live forever.  My life span varies from year to year but probably not much more than a month.  There is no queen (against the law to ship queen ants) so no ongoing life cycle.  Also, the farm is fascinating to watch but is definitely not designed for long-term ant survival.  I don’t want the kids in my class to see them all die so I move the farm home after a few weeks which makes room on the science table for our caterpillars to move in!

Here’s a fun video from Ants Alive showing how to prepare your farm and add the ants.  I’m not kidding when I say they can escape.

Here’s an out-take from a National Geographic documentary that shows ants in action in New York City.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live in an ant farm?  Phineas and Ferb (of the Disney Channel) did and to find the answer, built a giant ant farm.  Here’s a clip from the Gi-ants episode.

Have you ever wondered why ants sometimes seem to be going crazy and crawling everywhere? Check out this episode of Every Little Thing podcast, When a Million Ants Come Marching In.

What about you?  Have you ever had an ant farm?  Do you have questions about keeping an ant farm?  Hit me up!

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ant farm in the classroom life cycle habitat study
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A great way to watch the ants as they work!
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